“A Friendly, Modest Truth-Teller”


The attentiveness of Congress and the transpartisan rhetorical brilliance of the speech were remarkable—the use of Lincoln and King provided an avenue to some of the U.S. public’s best ideals of solidarity, persistent hopefulness—the dream—and shared responsibility, a word used to set the tone right at the start of the speech. Reference to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton before the Congress stunned all of us who have studied and loved them. Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently called Day’s canonization process to the pope’s attention. Merton is still widely read across the Christian world.

U.S. historians, I am sure, admire the way the pope gently used shared memories of earlier prejudice and violence aimed at immigrants like our forebears to frame our response to refugees and immigrants today. Then there was his unexpected, sharp—“it’s all about money”—appeal to end the global arms trade which called attention to an issue central to advocates of peace through international cooperation across the world, all but invisible in the United States. The pope’s strong standard reminder of “our responsibility to defend and protect human life at every stage of its development” led not to abortion as expected but to the death penalty, while his moving appeal regarding the importance of families to human well-being led not to criticism of gay marriage but to widely shared worries about young people of all classes not getting married and thus missing out—themselves and their children—on the supports and joys and social benefits of family life.

How many of us have wanted to rally people to a good cause without getting them angry or depressed or coming across as self-righteous or naive? A friend used to complain about “grim-faced do-gooders.” Here in front of us is a friendly, modest truth-teller who makes us all want to do good. There will be many jokes about Congress and its response, but the laughter will probably be a cover for our own uneasiness in the presence of this living witness to that golden rule he spoke of. He put hosts John Boehner and Joe Biden on the spot, but he made room there for all of us!

David O’Brien is professor emeritus of Roman Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross.