For the moment, a political pope was bigger than politics -- and made American politics seem smaller in the process.
The rapturous, bipartisan reception that greeted Pope Francis upon his entry into the House chamber –- a place no pope has gone before -– drowned out the considerable political noise outside the building.
The summer of Donald Trump seemed a distant echo, another government shutdown a distant possibility. The pope waded deep into policy, though not in the comfortable way we’ve come to expect where pronouncements fall neatly along party lines.
While the appearance was billed as flipping the traditional political script of papal appearances, with Republicans made more uncomfortable by the pope’s message than Democrats, the pope actually offered a broad, if quiet, rebuke to the entire state of American politics.
In simply invoking the Golden Rule, Francis struck a tone that few in the assembled gallery can say they’re keeping to.
“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we’d want to be treated,” he said.
Flanking the pope on television screens were two veteran Catholic pols of a similar generation but vastly different ideologies. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner were both visibly moved by the moment, its promise, and its portent, their political battles set aside for the day.
Francis offered a vision of politics motivated by something more important than partisanship. It’s an apt lesson for a campaign season dominated by name-calling and harsh rhetoric.
“Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” he said. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
The comments seemed to have little relation to the moment. A presidential front-runner is engaging in an insult spree while advocating the hardest of lines toward undocumented immigrants. Members of Congress are threatening to shut down the government in an effort to win a battle in the fight against abortion – an area where they actually agree with the pope.
Refreshingly, the pope wasn’t campaigning. He prominently mentioned helping the poor and protecting the planet in ways most Democrats were ready to applause. Yet his call to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” of course, were words Republicans broadly cheered.
It’s a disservice to this or any global religious leader to confine him or her to the stiff, left-right nature of American politics. It’s equally obnoxious to cherry-pick policy positions from a religious leader simply to advance an agenda.
The pontiff exulted in being able to speak in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Yet – as the pope didn’t and surely wouldn’t note -- that freedom has led to precious little political bravery of late.
If there was a political message all could agree with, it’s perhaps that a country that has “inspired so many people to dream” has great political moments ahead of it.
The pope will move on soon enough. But if a piece of his message remains, the campaign will be better for it.