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Pope Francis: Policy is all about people

Pope Francis greets attendees as he leaves an

Pope Francis greets attendees as he leaves an interfaith prayer service at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. Credit: Pool / EPA / Eduardo Munoz

For Pope Francis, there was an important lesson to be found in looking into the faces of the families of first responders who died in the World Trade Center attack.

"Meeting them made me see once again how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material," he said Friday at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

From the United Nations General Assembly to his Mass in Madison Square Garden and in his speech to Congress a day earlier, the pope urged his audiences to see the world's crises through the humanity of the individuals who suffer through them. It's a theme of his papacy, frequently highlighted in his American journey.

It was reflected not only in his speeches but also in the glow on his face when he connected in East Harlem with children at Our Lady Queen of Angels School and car washers who organized a union movement, and in Washington, D.C., with the homeless.

During his morning speech at the United Nations, Francis cautioned diplomats against being content "with the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals -- goals, objectives and statistical indicators."

Beyond all the plans and programs "we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights," he said.

He asked the delegates to look at warfare in the same way:

"In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die," he said. "Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements."

Sister Margaret Mayce, who represents the nongovernmental organization Dominican Leadership Conference at the UN, said there is a danger of focusing on statistics rather than people when problems are being discussed on such a broad scale.

"I think he's done a masterful job of bringing the conversation back where it belongs," said Mayce, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.

She said that one role for NGOs at the United Nations is to tell delegates -- who might lack a connection to the poor in their home countries -- that marginalized people have a right to participate in decisions that affect them.

"The pope is reminding the UN that what they're about is people, helping the people become 'dignified agents of their own destiny,' " she said. "Those are his words."

Francis brought this outlook both to the United Nations, which is famous for its bureaucracy, and to everyday New Yorkers as well.

In his Mass at Madison Square Garden, Francis spoke of how big-city life, with its "roar of traffic" and rapid change, can "conceal the faces of all those people who don't appear to belong," such as foreigners or the homeless.

"These people stand at the edge of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity," he said. "They became part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts."

He also pointed out to members of Congress on Thursday that their own ancestors were immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life -- much as today's newcomers have.

"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 situation," he said.

Francis made the Golden Rule a centerpiece of his speech to Congress, a person-to-person approach to public policy. "Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated," he said.

The Rev. Daniel P. Horan, author of "The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton," said the pope's encyclical "Laudato Si" held up St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake, as someone who refused to look at people as objects.

Horan, a Franciscan, said one reason for the saint's decision to live in poverty was that it moved him closer to the poor.

The pope's efforts to live in simplicity do the same, he said. That is seen even in his choice of a Fiat rather than a limousine for his transportation: "He's so accessible. He doesn't have tinted windows."

For Francis, as he said Friday night in a filled Madison Square Garden, finding Jesus is a matter of "learning to see."

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