For the past two weekends, I’ve been in a retreat-like atmosphere just outside Philadelphia’s Center City. I say “retreat-like” only because it was at a seminary, where one can get lost among beautiful paintings — reminders of the contributions Christianity has made to lifting up souls and civilization; we began with Mass; and everyone was focused on opening doors and healing wounds.
Gathered were volunteers wanting to be part of the welcoming committee not just for Pope Francis when he visits the City of Brotherly Love in the fall, but also for the media who will be covering the event. The pope will be coming to join the World Meeting of Families at the convention center here in Philadelphia, and he will be addressing the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, among other things, while he is here in the States. I can’t tell you how excited Philadelphia Catholics are. It’s no surprise, of course. Have you seen the numbers? Two years into his pontificate as of this coming Friday, Pew has him rating high not just among church-going Catholics but among the population at large (seven in ten American adults view him “favorably”).
But the gratitude the people of Philadelphia feel in anticipation of his visit has nothing to do with the celebrity of their holy father. It’s the opportunities his visit represents: for renewal; for reintroduction; for witness; for a welcoming, not just to him, but to all who have been hurt by or felt isolated from the Church.
A couple of days ago, I listened to a doctor whose specialty is end-of-life care. He told the story of a woman he called Angela. She was found alongside the Cross Bronx Expressway. She had no identification and scarcely spoke when she was picked up and taken to the hospital. Until, shortly before dying, she thanked “Dr. Mike” and promised to speak his name to God. That was a gift to this doctor, who had walked with a woman he had no obligation to other than that she was a fellow creation of God, a human being with dignity. But he had made sure she lived her last days feeling as loved as she, with all her unknown trials, could feel.
Two years into the historical phenomenon that is Pope Francis, this is the message: We must make God’s love known.
A lot of Americans had a bit of a wake-up call as the new year of 2014 approached. As she was about to give the signal for the Waterford ball to drop in Times Square, Catholic-school alum Justice Sonia Sotomayor was compelled to intervene on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order of women who run homes for the elderly poor in various places across the nation. Like Dr. Mike with Angela, they make men and women who might otherwise be forgotten, or seen as burdens, live their last days as cherished human beings. On December 31, Justice Sotomayor blocked the HHS mandate from subjecting the Little Sisters and other religious groups to ruinous fines for failing to offer coverage for contraception — and abortion drugs — in their health insurance.
There’s a song you may well know: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But how many of us have seen Christians behave in a fashion that is far from loving? Maybe that’s why we never marched in the streets when an ecumenical coalition asked the Obama administration to quit infringing on the religious freedom of the Little Sisters and others, or when the ACLU and the state of Washington intervened to tell a florist that she needs to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding — even though the groom who had requested the flowers didn’t go to court, but respected the florist’s conscience. What a country that would be: If we truly respected religious freedom and the conscience rights of others, and if we truly valued those who provide valuable services to those in need, seeking to better their communities and the world while they are in it. And, yes, who want to propose something about truth. We are still free to choose. Shouldn’t we all want the best choices to float to the surface, for the good of everyone?
All this is backdrop to keep in mind as we look at a controversy flaring in San Francisco. Writing to the Catholic archbishop there, eight California lawmakers insisted that the morality clauses in a new teacher handbook, introduced during contract negotiations and in keeping with Catholic teaching and practice, “conflict with settled areas of law and foment a discriminatory environment in the communities we serve.” The lawmakers attacked the archdiocese’s reasonable expectation that the teachers in its schools would live their public lives in accordance with Church teaching. These lawmakers insist that for the archdiocese to operate within the guidelines of a Catholic conscience — that is, to exercise freedom of religion — is, in fact, a civil-rights violation.
The phrase “freedom to choose” comes up in their letter. The choice in today’s West goes only so far. It has become a pledge of allegiance to an ideological prescription, part of a secular religion that offers toleration only to those who keep their religion to themselves except, perhaps, for the occasional ceremonial function.
What Pope Francis has managed to do, however, is keep people interested, even as he spends over a year focusing the Church he shepherds on family life. One man, one woman, for the love and protection and flourishing of children at a time when people wonder: Is this possible any more? Is this desirable? Is this necessary? The World Meeting is an ecumenical focus on just this, and a celebration of and support for families. The people I’ve been meeting in Philadelphia have found joy in Church teaching and want to share why. They face all the challenges of the modern day — they find plenty of them on the streets of Philadelphia, for Pete’s sake! — and they want to share what they’ve found in practical faith. For his part, Pope Francis has on more than one occasion offered the suggestion that the most important things for a husband and wife to remember to say are “May I?” and “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” You start there, and see a path toward peace. You start there, and there might just be an opening to get beyond threatening letters, coercive mandates, and miserable politics.