By Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ
For The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s note: Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, had a front-row seat outside the U.S. Capitol to watch the speech that Pope Francis gave Sept. 24 to a joint session of Congress. She shared her reflections with St. Ambrose University’s Board of Trustees. We reprint them here.)
With all its usual pomp and ceremony, the House welcomed the Senate first, then the diplomatic corps, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. Then, with almost a hush, the Speaker welcomed “Pope Francis from the Holy See.” The Chamber erupted, and so did the tens of thousands of us on the West Capitol stairs and down into the Mall. A security officer I asked estimated the number at 80,000 to 90,000.
The pope responded humbly and graciously, then began his address. I was touched by his determination to give his speech in English, without translation, even though it was not a language he was comfortable in. I found that a profound gesture, both humble and respectful, reflecting back upon a time when I gave a commencement address in Spanish at a university in Spain. People then, and all of us at this event, were touched by his desire to touch us directly, in our own language, despite what labor it cost him.
Among the thousands outside, I felt a hush come over us, as though we wished to meet his struggle to communicate with our own struggle to understand him, both sides desirous for connection, for a kind of communion with each other. As he has done all over the world, he reflected a careful study of our culture, and challenged us gently to be a country where our political system and economic system could strive to be, as he said, “modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
Those are three themes we have seen consistently in his papacy for the past two-and-a-half years: he urges us to keep moving forward into the future and not fear modernity; he challenges us to make sure that no one is excluded, especially those most vulnerable such as the elderly or the young; he pleads for us to bring a heart for the earth, as he called it, “our common home.”
He wove those ideas so beautifully through his address, setting before us four models from among us: Abraham Lincoln who, he said, called us to protect liberty; Martin Luther King, who challenged us to include all in our American Dream; Dorothy Day, who championed the cause of social justice; and Thomas Merton, who set before us a goal for developing a “capacity for dialogue.” And he used his own role, as the “Pontifex,” to say that it was his duty to build bridges.
As an academic, I was touched and challenged when he called on “academic and research institutions” to make a contribution to our society. Certainly our mission at St. Ambrose, and its long tradition of work for peace and justice, can be inspired by his words.
His simple but profound reminder of the Golden Rule when dealing with others, and his ending emphasis on the family and the need to reach out to the most vulnerable among families, challenges us all to work for the betterment of families in our world today.
The applause and cheers, both in the Chamber and outside were thunderous, as I think we all realized we had heard some historic and inspiring words.
When he emerged outside on the balcony, all of us outside roared our approval and welcome. And his final words to us, giving us his blessing and asking for our prayers, brought back for me that first night the world saw him, when I was privileged to be in St. Peter’s Square, when he humbly asked for OUR blessing. I was deeply moved at his gesture of inclusivity to all in his audience, both in person and on TV, when he recognized that some in the audience might not pray. His humble request that they send best wishes his way truly moved me, as he recognized the pluralism of our country and respected it.