A rookie organizer with the unusual name of Barack Hussein Obama, trying to figure out how Chicago worked and how to make it work better for its impoverished neighborhoods, found early and powerful partners in its Catholic parishes. The common-good imperatives of Catholic social teaching meshed neatly with what he was trying to do.
It would have been difficult for that youthful Obama to imagine greeting a pope at the White House -- or the criticism he would get for the identity of some of the people he invited to the party. But there he was, standing proudly beside Pope Francis, listening to the anthems of the Vatican and of the United States. And in his welcome to the pope, a talk that began with a scriptural echo -- "What a beautiful day the Lord has made" -- Obama made a brief reference to those parishes.
Obama talked about the work the church does around the world, uplifting the poor, the troubled, the orphaned. And he called Francis a living example of Jesus' teaching, a leader "whose moral authority comes not just through words, but also through deeds." The president cited the central Christian imperative to care for "the least of these," from Matthew 25, the Gospel chapter that laid out those Jesus wanted us all to treat with love: the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the stranger.
At the very start of his own talk -- without referring to the wall-building, deport-millions rhetoric of the Republican presidential campaign -- Francis said something heartfelt and important about immigration: "As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families." The role that immigration has always played in American history -- and despite the demagoguery, continues to play -- is something we all need to remember. So it was encouraging to hear those words from someone with immense moral authority, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, including 70 million in America.
The president spoke warmly of the pope's help in arranging a historic improvement in relations between the United States and Cuba, a Catholic nation ruled by a communist government, which the pope just visited. And the pope thanked the president for tackling climate change, the subject of the papal encyclical, "Laudato Si.' "
"We still have time to make the change needed," Francis said. Of course, many conservative Catholics -- like other conservatives -- stubbornly view climate change as not only dubious science, but also beyond the sphere of papal competence. But in the context of saving the planet, the pope echoed the civil rights language of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his "I Have a Dream" speech: "... we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."
Neither the president nor the pope spoke bluntly about the issues that divide them -- abortion and marriage equality, to name two. But both talks contained hints. The president spoke of the need "to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity, because we are all made in the image of God" and cited the pope's constant emphasis on the mercy of God. "It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast and those who have suffered, and those who have caused suffering and seek redemption," Obama said.
That reference to the outcast, of course, could be read as referring to the LGBT community, which still feels rejected by the church, despite the pope's famous "Who am I to judge?" It was, among other things, the invitations to gay and transgender people to the White House welcome that set off the alarm bells for some Obama critics.
Before the pope arrived, William Donohue, the head of the Catholic League -- gifted with special, hypersensitive X-ray vision for anti-Catholicism -- said the president was showing contempt for Catholics. The Rev. Franklin Graham -- whose position on same-sex marriage is about as subtle as the machine gun he once used to mow down a tree for a friend -- also chimed in. The Vatican, too, expressed concerns about the guest list. But it's tough to blame Obama for extending a welcoming gesture to gay people, when the church itself is trying to figure out how to welcome them, to evangelize them, without changing its teaching that homosexuality is objectively disordered.
Francis said nothing specific about the marriage issue, though he did refer to the need to "celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family in this critical moment in the history of our civilization." For all his emphasis on mercy, this pope is not going to change Catholic teaching on homosexuality -- nor is the next pope, or the one after that. But many of us who put our envelopes in the collection basket every Sunday happen to think that this is a teaching rooted in erroneous anthropology, biology, and psychology -- and we can pray that it does someday change.
After all, it took only a century for the church to make an about-face on the question of religious liberty. These days, we hear that phrase uttered often in Catholic pulpits and imprinted on the bumper stickers of many cars parked in parish parking lots -- largely in response to differences between the American Catholic bishops and Obama over insurance coverage of contraception. And both pope and president talked about religious liberty. But we need to remember that, in the 1864 "Syllabus of Errors" of Pope Pius IX, one of the beliefs condemned as execrable and false was this one: "Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true." Oops. The church no longer rejects that idea so much. So who knows what change might be possible?
Aside from the issues, spoken or unspoken, in the welcoming ceremony, two other things struck me.
Francis is a truly humble man who embraces the servant-of-the-servants-of-God description of the papacy, who washes feet, who cares for the poor. That's why he is so universally loved. So it must be more than a tad difficult for him to be the center of such pomp, such ceremony, such brisk sales of papal trinkets. Yet he seems to carry it off with so comfortably and well. You can't help but root for him and love him for that.
At the very end of the pope's talk, the words "God bless America" sounded so much more authentic coming from him than it does as the obligatory coda of every political speech in America today.
Can't wait to hear what else he has to say and how his words will bless America.
Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.