This week, our country has the historic honor of welcoming Pope Francis to the United States for the first time. While millions of Americans are expected to welcome Pope Francis with fanfare, his visit also calls for a time of deep reflection on our nation’s obligations and priorities.
As an American and a Catholic, I believe, fundamentally, in our individual and shared responsibility to create a better and more just society and world. “Any seeker of a higher truth or of God,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “must eventually and inevitably come back to the idea of community.” Each and every one of us is endowed with a sacred responsibility to advance the common good we share.
This, I believe, is why so many people — not only Catholics, but people of so many creeds and faiths, and those who profess to not have religious faith — are energized by Pope Francis’ message. He is a reformer, but one who creates change by “letting the light in” so all of us can see the truth and act upon that truth. As he works to heal wounds and divisions within his own church, he inspires millions of others: to embrace those who have been marginalized by poverty or discrimination; to act now to head off the devastation of climate change for the sake of our "common home," this one earth; and to reach out and help those most in need.
What does the call of his message hold for us as citizens of the United States?
Pope Francis will undoubtedly challenge America with a question: At a time of growing inequality, entrenched poverty, and widespread uncertainty and unrest in the world, will we be a force for healing and reconciliation? Or, out of fear for ourselves and distrust of the unknown, will we turn our backs on the work of waging peace, as a moral leader among nations?
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Pope Francis calls us to act on this question, guided by the principles of faith. For many Americans, we also find our motivation to take action in the principles of our founding ideals.
Today, Europe shoulders an unprecedented surge of refugees from war-torn Syria. Pope Francis asks us to house and feed families fleeing crisis, saying, “the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope.”
As a generous and compassionate nation of immigrants, the United States has a long, proud tradition of providing comfort to the weak and weary. The United States should heed Pope Francis’ call by welcoming no fewer than 65,000 Syrian refugees next year. We cannot forget what it means to struggle and toil and yearn for a better life beyond the next horizon; we have a moral responsibility to act.
The world’s poor will first bear the brunt of climate change, as Pope Francis wrote this summer. But there is no independent salvation on this planet. Our survival depends upon our meeting this challenge. Fortunately for the United States, leading the transition to a 100 percent clean, renewable electric future is also the greatest job creation opportunity we have had in a century.
We must seize this opportunity to build a cleaner and more humane economy that lifts up all of us, while protecting our “common home.”
And with 11 million aspiring citizens living in the shadows of our nation, it is imperative that we remember our fundamental character: e pluribus unum, that out of many, we are one. For, as the Holy Father says, "Humans have a dignity that is priceless."
We must bring undocumented families into the full light of life and our nation by passing comprehensive immigration reform — while using every ounce of executive authority to keep families together, end detention, safeguard the rights of New Americans, and otherwise restore greatness and justice to America’s immigration system.
How we respond to these and to so many other challenges — from education to healthcare — will speak to the type of country we are. It is not enough to reflect or have faith — we must have the courage to risk action on that faith.
Over the past two years, I have been fortunate to travel all across this great country. Everywhere I go, I meet people who are eager to forge a new consensus, to fight injustice and suffering, and to provide greater hope and opportunity to their neighbors. They are hungry for new leadership, to harness our inclusiveness and compassion to work towards a brighter future.
So as we welcome Pope Francis, I look forward to our country taking up his challenge: remembering our country’s founding values, reaffirming our commitment to upholding them, and looking beyond ourselves to welcome the stranger, protect our earth, and let compassion guide all our doings.
[Martin O’Malley is a Democrat running for president in 2016.]