Respect for Human Dignity Becomes Takeaway Message From Pope Francis’s Historic First Visit to the United States

Pope Francis returned to Rome the night of Sunday, September 27th, bringing his historic U.S. visit to a close. I think I speak for many people when I say I’m more than a little disappointed it’s all over.

It is always a bit of a letdown when a highly anticipated event comes to an end, and the Pontiff’s visit was certainly such an event. Traffic patterns were dramatically altered in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia during the Pope’s six-day visit. Twenty-five thousand people attended the mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Twenty thousand others attended the mass celebrated in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Approximately 860,000 people crammed onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia to participate in the festivities of World Meeting of Families, which the Pope also attended. As these numbers indicate, to call Pope Francis’s visit to the United States “highly anticipated” might actually be a huge understatement.

Pope Francis had a lot of incredible moments during his short visit to our country. He moved a whole nation to tears when he stopped the motorcade as he was leaving the Philadelphia airport to bless Michael Keating, a 10-year-old boy suffering from cerebral palsy. He charmed everyone at the World Meeting of Families when he discarded his prepared remarks in favor of an informal, off-the-cuff speech. There are so many to choose from, but for me Pope Francis’s shining moment came during his address before a joint session of Congress. That morning the Pope spoke with incredible frankness about what it means to be human and to relate to others on a person-to-person level. It was particularly refreshing to hear such a message spoken in Congress, which is often the scene of division, pettiness, and disrespect, rather than of harmony, community, and dignity.

Pope Francis said a lot in his address to Congress that students of Latin America can relate to. In referring to immigrants, Pope Francis said that we “must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situations.” In this moment, I was reminded of the shameful way in which so many Americans responded to the immigration crisis last summer. People fleeing from violence and trauma in Central America were greeted, not with love and open arms, but rather with signs that read things like “Go home!” and “D.H.S. Stop Dumping Your Illegals Here!” Students of Latin American Studies will also have noted Pope Francis’s congratulatory reference to the thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sorrow as the Pope condemned the arms trade as an evil policy motivated purely by the selfish pursuit of “money, money that is drenched in blood.” I thought about how many U.S. dollars and U.S. weapons were employed in the wars throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, and how this pattern continues to contribute to the bloodshed in the region today.

In his address, Pope Francis encouraged America to move beyond its past mistakes and fulfill its destiny as the “land of dreams” and the “home of the free and the brave.” As much as we might like to see this, I don’t think Pope Francis’s visit will drastically change U.S. domestic or international policy — at least not in the immediate future. However, Pope Francis wasn’t just addressing Congress that day. “Today, I would like not only to address you,” he said, “but through you the entire population of the United States.” Starting today, we can make a change in our own lives to better reflect Pope Francis’s message about upholding the human dignity of all people.

In our classes, we often proclaim support for, or at least sympathy with, the so-called ideologies of leftist revolutionary movements, congratulating ourselves for being on the right side of history and declaring ourselves “humanists.” Yet all the while we so often fail to uphold the human dignity of those directly in our own lives. We cancel on friends at the last second because suddenly we decide we are too tired to go out. We content ourselves with a simple text message, “Sorry can’t make it,” or worse pretend our phone is dead and just go MIA for the next 12 hours. We shelter our fragile egos from the horrors of singlehood by stringing people along long after we’ve realized there is no real future with someone we are dating. We neglect those in our company to check the latest update on our phones. We swipe left when we think someone is ugly and right when we want an easy hookup. Pope Francis’s address to Congress awakens us to the truth that respect for human dignity is not confined to the theories contained on the pages our textbooks. It is living and breathing in front of us every day.

Pope Francis does not intend to make us feel guilty. Rather, he rejects what he calls the “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil…the righteous and the sinners.” He recognizes that for every time we have failed to uphold the dignity and sacredness of another human being’s life, we have also been victims of the same way of thinking. This is why we love it so much when Pope Francis embraces a child, blesses a disfigured person, or visits inmates in prison. In acknowledging the dignity of the most neglected members of our society, Pope Francis affirms the dignity of us all. Like the child, the disabled person, and the prisoner, we have all at some point felt weak, vulnerable, or outcast. Through his words and actions, Pope Francis comforts us and reassures us that we matter.

Pope Francis’s visit only lasted six days, but let’s not let his message last for only six days. Let us heed the Pope’s call to resist the urge to allow our hearts to grow numb to the human dignity of those around us. Instead, let us “regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and for the world” (Laudato Si’, 229).

Caitlin-Marie Ward is a second year in the Master’s program in Latin American Studies getting a certificate in Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies. She is a native of Washington, DC. 

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