Pope Francis’s address to Congress is about virtue – a call to live up to our potential as people created in God’s image to love and to be loved.
He said that we are called to “defend and preserve the dignity of [our] fellow citizens and the tireless demanding pursuit of the common good….Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals….Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.” We could dismiss his words as platitudes, but he underscores their urgency by painting a picture of the sad alternative and then offers a solution.
He quotes the American monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, to describe a life without virtue: “I came into the world,” Merton wrote. “Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”
Our self-contradictory hungers make us aimless and despairing: hunger for isolation, hunger for community; hunger for purity, hunger for license; hunger to lose weight, hunger to be filled; hunger to rest, hunger to achieve. Without the rudder of virtue – knowing what a virtuous life looks like and how to practice it – we are tossed by our contradictory hungers, never knowing the peace that we crave above all.
Pope Francis called Merton an inspiration “despite [his] human weakness” that helps us, even amidst conflicts and “in the here and now of each day, to draw up on our deepest cultural reserves” to “move forward, and to do so with dignity.” What is moving forward but growth in virtue: to increase our sense of justice, to grow in courage and self-control, and to make wise and unselfish choices?
Dignity requires self-knowledge and maturity. Affirming the dignity of others demands that we avoid “feed[ing] the enemy within” that would create distance between ourselves and others by a false sense of superiority or inferiority. How often do we attempt to build ourselves up by rashly judging others? How often do we underestimate our power to do good in the here and now?
Virtue means starting each fresh day mindful of the common good – it is a battle won by prayer and practice. Francis confirms the value of fighting this daily battle to conquer our selfishness. The whole of Washington, DC, reached out to encounter in this humble man the infinite God of compassion. A virtuous life makes us the light of God to others. Hungering for God alone, we are among those who “in their own quiet way, sustain the life of society.”