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The pope rightly prods America to do better

Pope Francis arrives at Kennedy Airport in Queens

Pope Francis arrives at Kennedy Airport in Queens on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the United States, which includes stops in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Pope Francis has come to the United States to both applaud the American experience and to challenge us to continue every day to aspire to our ideals.

He had us at the first "God Bless America."

When the pope spoke the phrase Wednesday at the White House, it was a heartfelt compliment, refreshingly not the rote boilerplate of our political events. And repeating the invocation again at the conclusion of his remarks to a joint session of Congress Thursday, it was a short prayer for a great nation that needs to repair its badly damaged political discourse.

The pope addresses the United Nations in New York City Friday and a World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend before returning to Rome. Midway through his journey, however, it's clear that Francis is uniquely gifted to bring these messages of healing for our individual families, our national family and our world family directly to our hearts.

The pope's highly anticipated speech to Congress began with a message that each member had the responsibility to work "in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good." This legislature certainly needed the reminder.

The pope's well-crafted and comprehensive address was inherently political, yet not in the scoreboard split of red and blue that inhibits the divining of common ground. Instead, he provided a moral framework to respond to the issues, a way for us to rise above conflict and division to find a hopeful path. And he kept it simple. He reminded us of the Golden Rule of how to get along, or in his words, "to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal." It was pastoral advice that we can't hear enough.

Francis mostly avoided advocating for direct political action, with these exceptions -- calling for an end to the death penalty and an end to the trading of arms, of which the United States is a major exporter. He only indirectly referred to more controversial topics of abortion and end-of-life measures. "The Golden Rule," he said, "also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." The pope may not change minds in Congress or on Long Island, but surely there can be agreement on his call for a "spirit of cooperation."

Francis did not propose any specific remedy for our immigration controversies, but counseled that "the stranger in our midst" be viewed with compassion. "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. And the pope, who has been very outspoken on how climate change will have the greatest impact on the world's poor, said capitalism can lead the way. He said the "proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable." Conversations that start with those approaches may lead to results.

When Pope Francis leaves, our challenges and struggles will remain.

Yet, his message of hope and courage can inspire us to confront them honestly and compassionately.