By Tom Ehrich
Pope Francis knows political division.
He grew up in Argentina, a nation prone to gross inequalities and military dictatorships. He served as priest and later bishop during Argentina's so-called "Dirty War," a nine-year time of right-wing terrorism ending in 1983, and during the riots of 2001.
As Pope, he serves a deeply divided church, including a staunch conservative wing that could turn on him at any moment.
As the first Pope to address the United States Congress, he seemed to understand the deep ideological divisions tearing apart that institution and rendering it dysfunctional. He spoke to the deep fissures in the nation at large. And he acknowledged the context of a world being torn asunder by religious extremism, lusts for wealth and power, and rampant distrust.
His remarks calling for better behavior, peace, humility, freedom, dreams, justice and faith weren't the naive words of a cloistered soul who doesn't know how the world works. They were the savvy words of someone who knows the world well, and who knows we can't keep on this way.
And, he seemed to say, it is up to America to lead the way. A nation founded on freedom needs to lead the cause of freedom. A nation built by immigrants needs to show the world what welcoming immigrants can mean. A nation founded on ideals shared by people of faith needs to rise above ideology, fear and greed.
Then he had lunch with the homeless of DC, rather than with the poobahs of Congress.
Whether the Roman Catholics in Congress and the nation's political life pay attention to the words of their spiritual leader remains to be seen. I'm not optimistic. But to millions of Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, he spoke to our better natures.
He named four American heroes: the Great Emancipator, who was excoriated by the right and mocked by the polite, and eventually was assassinated; the great speaker of dreams, who was beaten and jailed for believing in freedom while black, and also was assassinated; a pacifist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, whom the Catholic Church couldn't decided whether to condemn or praise; and a monk, mystic and writer who touched millions through words.
That quartet of heroes suggested that Pope Francis understands this nation better than we sometimes understand ourselves. At a time when we seem to believe little in ourselves, he seemed to have great confidence in us. His vision, grounded in faith, seems the hopeful one.