Good Morning
Good Morning
OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

Pope Francis's profound message at UN and 9/11 museum

Pope Francis visits the National September 11 Memorial

Pope Francis visits the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City and prays at "Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning" by Spencer Finch on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. Credit: Pool / Getty Images

On his whirlwind full day in New York -- a city that offers views of both the world's wealth and its poverty, its powerful and its homeless -- Pope Francis had an agenda of stunning breadth.

At the United Nations General Assembly and at the 9/11 museum in Lower Manhattan, his concerns were global: peace, better lives for the poor, and environmental protection. In East Harlem, his focus was the local, a poor neighborhood whose parish church, Our Lady Queen of Angels, has closed -- like so many others in this country -- though its school clings bravely to life, serving mostly Latino and black children.

Typical of Francis, before he strode to the General Assembly rostrum, he spoke with UN staff in a warmly personal way. He remained true to his concern for everyday people, mentioning not only the experts and the translators, but also the cleaners and cooks, maintenance and security workers. He urged them, in addition to their daily duty of worrying about the future of the whole planet, to care for each other.

 "I will pray for your and your families, and I ask each one of you please to remember to pray for me," he said, again making clear his own need for prayer, as he has done since he stepped out on that balcony in Rome in 2013 as the newly elected pope. And to those on the UN staff who might not be believers, he said, to applause and laughter, "I ask you to wish me well."

The speech to the General Assembly continues a tradition started by Pope Paul VI in 1965 (my first opportunity to write about a pope). In that speech, he minced no words: "No more war, war never again." His successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also addressed the General Assembly (John Paul twice), and both spoke forcefully against war. John Paul opposed the disastrous Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and didn't back down from reminding President George W. Bush of that opposition, when Bush visited the Vatican a year after the invasion.

This pope's UN speech seemed less gritty, more lofty and even academic, than the one he gave to Congress. Let's not forget, though: He was addressing a room full of highly educated diplomats, as opposed to a legislative chamber brimming with climate change deniers. And, of course, he's a Jesuit -- usually a reliable sign of intellectual rigor, of lofty ideas, of scholarly phrases like "declarationist nominalism." He even mentioned the need for an examination of conscience, a delicate echo of a key element of the Jesuit order's Ignatian spirituality: the daily examen, an evening reflection on the events of the day and God's presence in them.

But his 45-minute speech offered its share of deeply human touches and some profound remarks on the environment, the arms trade, the need for total nuclear disarmament. In addition to laying down broad philosophical principles, he reminded the diplomats that those who suffer are real people.

"Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict, as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region, real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be," Francis said. "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."

In his long appeal for environmental protection, Francis delivered a pithy description of belief that ought to be on the wall of every member of Congress: "We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good."

Speaking to an organization that has set out elaborate international definitions of human rights, the pope offered a simple formulation of what government leaders must do to make sure that families live in dignity and flourish. "In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labor, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights." Another candidate for engraving on congressional walls.

Once again, the pope spoke out against the international arms trade. He didn't have to say, but it is true, that the United States is the largest exporter of conventional arms in the world. And the United States is launching a project to upgrade its nuclear arsenal that could cost nearly $1 trillion over the next three decades. On nuclear weapons, the pope went well beyond what the U.S. Catholic bishops said three decades ago in their war and peace document, "The Challenge of Peace." The dominant theory of nuclear weapons possession has been deterrence, or Mutual Assured Destruction, aptly abbreviated as MAD. The bishops left room for a strictly conditioned acceptance of deterrence -- but only on the way to full disarmament. That, of course, has not come about.

"An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction--and possibly the destruction of all mankind--are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as 'nations united by fear and distrust,' " Francis said. "There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the non-proliferation treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons." Yes!

Within hours after he was greeted, among others, by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who voted against the deal to slow Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, the pope spoke out in favor of it: "I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious, and bring forth the desired fruits with the cooperation of all the parties involved."

This pope's visit comes at a crucial moment for the UN: a horrific refugee crisis arising from the Syrian civil war; a vote on sustainable development goals for the next 15 years; and preparation for a climate summit in Paris in December.

The UN is a flawed institution. Its peacekeeping forces have been accused of rape in Africa, of spreading cholera in Haiti, of failing to stop genocide in Rwanda. But its agencies -- such as UNICEF, UNESCO, and the High Commissioner for Refugees -- do good work around the world. And Francis clearly believes in that work. He ended his speech with a prayer that the UN and its officials "will always render an effective service to mankind, a service respectful of diversity and capable of bringing out, for sake of the common good, the best in each people and in every individual."

From there, Francis traveled to the National September 11 Memorial Museum for a deeply moving interfaith service, at a place now emblematic of the senseless violence that grows from ideology. Here, the pope was one of many faith leaders to speak. Briefly he spoke in English, and later, before he gave a longer talk, he apologized for his lack of facility in that language.
In his native Spanish, Francis spoke movingly of those who died, of those who risked their lives, of tears, of the "pain that leaves us speechless, but screams to heaven." And he concluded with a lovely call for peace, leading to a moment of silence, then an exchange of hugs and handshakes on the stage, much like the kiss of peace at Mass -- a practice that some Vatican liturgists would like to tame.

"Peace in our homes," Pope Francis said, "in our families, in our schools, in our communities, peace in all the places in which war seems to be endless, peace in the faces of the people who have only seen pain, peace in this wide world that God has given us as a home for all. Only peace." That powerful sentiment should be framed, too -- and lived.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.