September 26, 2015
St. Louis (CNS)—Pope Francis' nearly hourlong speech to Congress was peppered with the moral issues of today: abortion, the family, immigration, the death penalty and even lawmaking body's role in serving the common good.
But while some are uncomfortable with a faith leader speaking about political, economic and social issues, that's historically what popes have done in bringing forth the message of the Gospel.
"For the pope ‚all moral issues affect the common good, and therefore there is no real boundary between private religion and public politics," said Jesuit Father Steven Schoenig, an associate professor of history at St. Louis University.
"That's very historical for Catholics. We don't like historically to keep religion tied off to one sphere. Our popes have, since the eighth century, been political leaders and religious leaders at the same time," he said.
Father Schoenig was part of a panel discussion after the Pope2Congress Watch Party Sept. 24 at the university's Center for Global Citizenship. About 250 people watched the pope's address and participated in the panel afterward.
More than 30,000 people across the country registered to attend Pope 2Congress watch parties, a brainchild of the Ignatian Solidarity Network.
Pope Francis' Jesuit roots were evident, as "we can sympathize in finding God in all things," Father Schoenig said. "We see no conflict with faith and culture. They seem to go together and help bring each other to fruition."
Monsignor Ted Wojcicki, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, spoke about his role in helping organize Pope John Paul II's 1999 pastoral visit to St. Louis. Reflecting on Pope Francis' call to abolish the death penalty, Monsignor Wojcicki noted the historical moment in which the late Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted Missouri inmate Darrell Mease's death penalty sentence, at the request of Pope John Paul.
A pope's visit shouldn't solely focus on what he's going to say or not say, said Monsignor Wojcicki, but becoming closer to Jesus. "When I preach from the pulpit, it's always about getting closer to the person of Jesus," he said. "That's deeper and richer than whatever theory a person has."
The tone of Pope Francis' address seemed "somewhat oblique," focusing on praise for the United States' accomplishments and highlighting the dreams of past political leaders, said Ellen Carnaghan, chair of St. Louis University's political science department.
The pope confronted the topic of polarization, which made Carnaghan think of the polarization among members of Congress. He also touched on politics as as a way of pursuing the common good—“something he must feel that many politicians have lost," she said.
Senior Caroline Frame said she was pleased Pope Francis spoke about the importance of the family and the dignity of the human person, including the topics of abortion and death penalty.
"I think it's amazing he spoke about young people—young people are going to be upholding the dignity of the human family," said nursing major told the
St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. "Young people need to dream."
Leonard McKinnis, an assistant professor of theological studies, said Pope Francis' references to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made him reflect on race relations in connection with the unrest in Ferguson.
"What the pope did for me was invoke a powerful message behind the image of God in every person," McKinnis said. "It forces all persons to raise that question: What does it mean as we enact laws and policies? How is the image of God reflected, not just in what we say, but what we do?"
In Chicago, 650 students took time from their studies to watch the pope's historic address to the joint meeting of Congress.
It was one of several such viewing sessions held in schools and other institutions throughout the archdiocese.
When Pope Francis involved the memories of not only Rev. King but three other Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Father Thomas Merton—he urged the lawmakers to always serve the common good.
Senior Nina Stuckel said that message resonates with students. Students also knew a bit beforehand about the pope's emphasis on climate change.
"I knew he was super big on the environment," she told the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
She and her classmate, Maureen Gillespie, said they liked that he spoke in favor using technology responsibly and wisely to help solve the problems facing the world.
"He seemed to be very pragmatic," Stuckel said.
They also liked that he admonished adults to pay attention to the challenges facing young people.
"There's a lot going on," Gillespie said, "and sometimes it seems like they are leaving it to our generation to solve."
Sister Mary Ann Meyer, a School Sister of St. Francis, who is chairman of the school's religious studies department, focused on the pope's references to "Laudato Si'," the encyclical released last summer. While most of the focus has been on what the document said about the environment, it spoke about the need to care for all of creation, including humanity.
That correlates directly with Pope Francis' statements to Congress that each person is made in the image of God and has inalienable dignity, she said.
"He said each one of us is willed, each one of is loved, each one of us is necessary," Sister Mary Ann said. That means that all people all are called on to help the people the pope spoke of in his address, "immigrants, refugees, the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the abused, the youth with all the challenges you face today."
Religion teacher Bradley Mulick noted Pope Francis has become with young people by being accessible to them in new ways. He engages them in their desire to make a difference in the world, Mulick said, and tells them to work for the vulnerable as Jesus did.
He also participates a bit in their culture, he said.
"When the pope poses for a selfie with young people, that shows his sense of fun and his willingness to engage with young people," Mulick said. "It makes the church seem less stuffy."