Pope’s Visit Bridges Gaps Between Many Groups of People

9-25-Pope3Pope Francis speaks at a multireligious gathering at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, September 25, 2015.

Now that the whirlwind visit of Pope Francis to the United States has come to a close, I urge people of all faiths, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, to watch and contemplate the video of the pontiff’s visit to the September 11 Memorial. The multi-faith service was deeply moving, perhaps more than any other event on his schedule, because it showed avowed enemies embracing one another and praying for peace together.

The service (not “interfaith,” but “multifaith,” because each religion keeps its own identity) was awe-inspiring and painful. Painful, because the memorial brings to mind the bitter conflicts and hatred that rage in many parts of the world and that were brought directly to us at Ground Zero. At the same time, the visual proof that human diversity can be mobilized to work together for the common good is awesome. I don’t know how to describe what I felt, seeing representatives of the world’s great religions and races bound together in remembrance of those we lost, but unified with hope for a better future as each spoke and prayed for peace. Rabbi and Imam embraced each other, and both put their arms around the pope. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, colorfully embodying the city’s strength in diversity and hope for the future, held hands as they sang for peace and circled the multi-denominational altar.

“I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero,” the pope began, “where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. . .This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue.”

Dialogue has been a repeated theme of the Pope. He emphasizes going out of oneself, out into the world and reaching out to people to find solutions to our problems. The pope is doing just that, trying to reach everyone, because the earth is “our common home,” because poverty, pollution, global warming and related ills affect us all. If we are God’s children, he reasons, then the planet is our sibling, and we must care for it. Last June he published his second encyclical, a document addressed to all people, not just Catholics, as in the past. In it, the Pope summons “the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development,” to understand the “immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”

Pope Francis has spoken with President Obama and has addressed Congress in Washington and the General Assembly at the United Nations. He has taken upon himself the task of spurring governments and individuals into action.

Who is this man who had millions of Americans — people of every creed and even non-believers — clamoring to see him, to touch him, to have contact with a man who seems to be authentically humble and spiritual? The rabbi who represented the Jewish faith at Ground Zero surmised that, had Francis been pope, the Jews would have fared much better during World War II — many wouldn’t have died. Francis today is a beacon of hope for all of humanity.

I surprise myself as I write this, non-believer that I am. I agreed to write about Pope Francis and climate change, because global warming is a pet issue of mine, not because I had the slightest interest in the Pope. (Full disclosure: my grandparents were all Catholic, but what faith there was dissolved before it met me.) So I began by reading Laudato Si’, the Pope’s dissertation on climate change and its probable causes and effects. I was blown away by its sophistication. I kept reading, drawn in, allowing only the Pope’s homilies and discourse to interrupt me. I wrote one lead after another for a piece on climate change, but Pope Francis himself kept pulling me away.

What he calls our “throwaway culture” produces hundreds of tons of garbage each year, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive. Who among us doesn’t glance at an unsightly field strewn with litter and remember when it was green and welcoming? “We have not yet managed,” writes Pope Francis, “to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources.”

There is an intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” he writes, with an unmistakable allusion to the evils of colonialism. That violence is “reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

The “worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades,” he writes of climate change. “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”

Of course, not everyone loves Pope Francis or agrees with him. In an astoundingly vitriolic attack, George Will, columnist for The Washington Post, writes about the pope’s “fact-free flamboyance,” and his “wooly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies.” Writing for Politico, Rich Lowry admits the pope is “infectiously likable,” but accuses him of being “the adorable mascot of the American left” because he espouses the “fashionable causes of income inequality and climate change.”

Ah, well. Are income inequality and climate change fashionable because they are finally being noticed and written about? I’ll stick with the “fashionable” evidence.

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