Professor Paul Giurlanda of the Theology and Religious Studies Department of Saint Mary’s College reflects on Pope Francis’ speech before Congress last week.
Like many, I was at least more than a little surprised while listening to Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress on September 24th, 2015 to hear him speak the names of Lincoln, King, Day and Merton. Naming four great heroes of the nation you’re visiting is certainly a graceful rhetorical move. And Lincoln and King fit the bill. But if you had had the opportunity to pick four icons of America, whom would you have chosen? Would you, for starters, have picked only Catholics, to use one possible preliminary category? Would you, perhaps have picked only Catholic saints? That would have been a tempting possibility, considering that the United States sports a surprisingly impressive group, including Father Damien of Molokai, Kateri Tekakwitha, “the lily of the Mohawks” and, of course, quite a few Jesuit martyrs.
So the surprise to me came when the Pope mentioned two decidedly anti-establishmentarian names: Day and Merton, people probably unknown to the majority of his listeners, even Catholics. Worse, Merton of course is still regarded with suspicion by many Catholics. Many writers fear that his increasing attraction to Eastern thought before his death in Bangkok casts doubt on his fidelity to Catholic spirituality. Isn’t our own spiritual tradition quite enough? Dorothy Day’s nomination as “servant of God” seems to have immunized her from harsh criticism at this point, but she certainly was not always thought of as someone to imitate. A pacifist even during World War II, and a hero to the Catholic left during the Vietnam era is a pretty unlikely model for Catholic youth, without even counting her strident anti-capitalism. Not for nothing was her newspaper sold for one cent and titled The Catholic Worker.
Honestly, I really don’t know why Francis chose these two Catholics. But I do know that I felt, as I listened to the Pope, that he had touched something inside me that hadn’t been reached by any ecclesiastical leader in quite some time. For those of us of my generation, come of age in the 60s, Day and Merton represented above all, honesty. You never thought for a moment that Miss Day cared what anybody thought about her views. And underneath Merton’s later writings especially was a rebellious streak that he could never completely hide. They seemed free of cant, sentimentality and the desire to move up the ladder of honors in any institution, least of all the church. What young people in those days looked for—and I hope still look for—are men and women free of the need to say what others want them to say, men and women who can, as the phrase went, “tell it like it is.”
What had been touched inside me when I heard the Pope honor Miss Day and Thomas Merton is that old, often disappointed hope, to find, not just an honest man, but a free and unafraid one. For most of us, ecclesiastics included, whose lives are bound by ambition to gain the next rung on the ladder of success, a man or woman who is playing a very different game is like a cool drink of water on a hot day.
 See Anthony Clark’s article, “Can We Trust Thomas Merton?” in Catholic Answers magazine (May, 2008). (http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton)
Portrait of Pope Francis by Brother Patrick Martin, F.S.C.
Photos of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Dorothy Day from Bob Fitch Photography Archive,
© Department of Special Collections, Stanford University.
Photo of Thomas Merton from Jim Forest on Flickr.