Pope Francis is currently taking the United States by storm! In just a little over a day since he touched down at the Joint Base Andrews (just outside Washington), he has not only charmed thousands of adulating Americans from across the board but has also raised several major concerns which need to be addressed.
In an unprecedented move, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, along with Vice-President Joe Biden and his family welcomed Pope Francis when he arrived on September 22nd. The US President does not normally go to welcome a foreign dignitary; however by doing so, Obama has sent a message to the American people and to the world leaders that the Pope’s visit is being taken very seriously. After the welcome, Pope Francis demonstrated what he stood for: simplicity and austerity as he shunned the limousine normally used by dignitaries and preferred to travel in a much smaller ordinary black Fiat hatch-back car. A powerful message for the people of the world’s richest country!
On September 23rd his first full day in America, he ‘wowed’ the people of America. At a highly moving reception at the White House and after a warm effusive welcome speech from President Obama, Pope Francis touched the hearts of the American people when he said “as the son of an “immigrant family”, I am happy to be a guest in this country which was largely built by such families. I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people”. He touched upon unjust discrimination, religious liberty, reconciliation and above all climate change saying, “it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home”, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about “a sustainable and integral development”, for we know that things can change”.
Pope Francis is known for his compassion for the poor and the refugees; besides being a blunt critic of capitalism, unbridled consumerism and the market-driven economy. He has constantly been advocating a simple lifestyle and being close to the people who live on the margins of society. In his path-breaking Encyclical ‘Laudato Si: On the Care for our Common Home’ he states “many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them” (#209). On the flight from Cuba to the US, he told the journalists that his critique of capitalism is consistent with the social teaching of the Church.
Besides addressing a joint sitting of the US Congress on September 24th he will also address the United Nations General Assembly on September 25th on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN and also in the context of the Summit on “Sustainable Development Goals”. This Summit is expected to bring together heads of Governments and of States from most of the 193 member countries. In both these momentous addresses, Pope Francis is expected to touch on some of the key concerns plaguing humanity today; including climate change, global warming and the wanton destruction of natural resources. In ‘Laudato Si’ he states “the warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world” (#51). It is significant that one of India’s leading dailies (DNA, page 1, September 23rd) in a major headline stated that, “Law aids tainted firms to continue mining: backed by a new law, it’s business as usual for miners accused of illegally extracting iron ore in a massive Rs 1 lakh crore scam”. But do we care?
US lawmakers and world leaders will surely pay rapt attention to what Pope Francis has to say as he emphasizes the urgency to end poverty and ensure peace for all. He is also expected to make a call for a paradigm shift in the way countries respond to endemic issues and of the way the powerful and vested interests would rather keep war and conflict going on in several parts of the world, for profiteering and greed.
In an anticipatory message on the Pope’s visit to the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon says that “he is confident that His Holiness Pope Francis’s visit will inspire the international community to redouble its efforts to achieve human dignity for all through ensuring greater social justice, tolerance and understanding among all of the world’s peoples”.
These next days are surely going to be special not merely for the US and the UN, but for the ordinary citizens in every corner of the world. A truly defining moment for humanity! Pope Francis through word and witness has brought a new breath, a fresh ray of hope to many. He is bound to challenge the world leaders in no uncertain terms. Will they have the courage to accept his challenge? And particularly, will India do so?
(* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.)