Leaders react to Pope Francis' United Nations speech

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York Sept. 25. (CNS photo//Mike Segar, Reuters)

Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York Sept. 25. (CNS photo//Mike Segar, Reuters)

by Tom Gallagher

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Moments after Pope Francis finished his powerful speech in front of over 150 world leaders in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations in New York City, reactions came pouring in. NCR solicited the views from a variety of leaders that can be read below. They have been edited for length and clarity.

This particular event was different. There was an electricity inside, not that there wasn't electricity at the [Basilica of the] National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the White House. I was sitting near the presidents of Tanzania, Uruguay and others. They were taken by the whole thing. In his remarks, Pope Francis jumped right into Catholic social teaching explicitly to 'right relations,' the common good. Pretty powerful. Pope Francis is about the Gospel. His speech you interpret inside your heart. His remarks have given me pause. I've just been impressed by the whole trip. Did you see what he did at Vespers [the evening prayer service at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City last evening]? The first thing he did was to remember all the Muslims celebrating Eid and sharing his prayers for those who died [due to the Hajj tragedy in Saudi Arabia that killed over 700 pilgrims]. Some bishops were probably surprised, asking themselves, "Where is he going here?" Then the pope praised women religious and all women.  Pope Francis has a great group around him, too.

Honorable Kenneth F. Hackett, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, (Given in an interview with NCR at the United Nations, New York, New York)

Pope Francis did not mince his words and laid out to the General Assembly at the United Nations a primer on international social conscience and how this agency must re-examine its stated foundational goals and objectives to address a myriad of problems confronting the world: inequality of nations and individuals, real action to preserve creation, the destruction to humankind wrought by illicit drug trade, confronting the root causes of persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and other problems as well.

Since he is a gentle man with a forceful message, he celebrated the anniversary of the U.N. as a positive backdrop to encourage the General Assembly and the countries they represent to be courageous and truly become a "United Nations."

Monsignor John E. Kozar, President, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, New York, New York

This address I am sure will be historic in nature as was the address to Congress yesterday. We all know the passion Pope Francis has for the environment, but of no less importance is his relentless call for justice and the end to economic and social exclusion. Dear to our hearts at CNEWA, a Pontifical Mission, are the calls to Christian institutions, especially working in education and social services to be truly effective in the struggle against the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, since this is what we try to do day in and day out in the field in every country where we work. It makes me proud of our institutional contributions to our local societies knowing that we are already trying to fulfill his vision and that of the Church.

His Holiness emphasizes the need for all to live in dignity, which is translated in practical terms to providing "lodging, labor, and land, religious freedom and the right to education and civil rights." It was a great pleasure to hear the message so loud and clear as these have been the hallmark of our work at CNEWA, a pontifical mission, working in seven "difficult" countries of the Middle East through three offices in Jerusalem, Amman and Beirut.

Of no less importance is the call to solve conflicts through "negotiation, mediation and arbitration" as well as even prayer in order to prevent wars and the systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities including Christians in the Middle East. As a Palestinian, my hope is that world leaders are listening closely today and will go back to their people and region with a renewed commitment to do just that. Our world will be much better going down this route.

He finally reminds all citizens of the world that the real danger comes from man and that we all have a common responsibility to act individually and collectively for the common good away from special interests to make this a more human and livable world.

My hat is off to this pope who is an inspiration not only to Catholics and Christians, but to every citizen around the world.

Sami El-Yousef, Regional Director for Palestine and Israel Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Pontifical Mission, Jerusalem 

I have just finished listening to His Holiness addressing the United Nations, and as a layperson living in the midst of a conflict zone where our future, not only as Christians, but as free human beings is at stake, I heard His Holiness addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York not as the head of the church who is responsible for his flock only, but rather as  responsible for the future of humanity itself -- from fighting poverty to preserving the planet and the right for education but most importantly he talked about caring for each other.

Actually it has been proven scientifically that humankind has been able to survive in this world not due to its own strength, intelligence or any other power, but rather due to the fact that among all creatures, the humans were the only ones that took care of each other and protected each other.

His Holiness found the diagnoses for our sufferings and also the causes of all of our sicknesses -- bad governing, inequality and religious persecutions.

The words of Pope Francis were as a general truth that will remain applicable in every place and at every moment, and me, as a Christian living in the Middle East and a social worker trying to accompany the local church and the local Christian communities in their long journey of sufferings and oppressions, I found with his words the strength not to give up but rather to go on, continue with determination what we are doing just like our Heavenly Father has taught us to do while carrying the cross to the Calvary, and I can see a light shining at the end of the tunnel.

Michel Constantin, Regional Director, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt; Head of Emergency Response Team, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Pontifical Mission, Beruit, Lebanon

The pope ends his speech with a call for new processes, which call forth the best in people as individuals, as communities and as one human family. These processes recognize the sacredness of everyone and of God's creation. They are processes of hope that cast a vote for the genius of people who care for each other, who overcome their fear with love, and journey forth in action with the courage that comes from a sense of the transcendent.

Carolyn Woo, President & CEO, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Maryland

The Holy Father's U.N. speech raised the bar again for political and economic leaders: we must prevent the exclusion, inequality, and war that Catholic Relief Services is responding to in so many countries.  

Pope Francis spoke in favor of the new 15 year global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, but reminded us all that success must be judged by the simple reality of whether real people have housing, food, education, and the basic rights entitled to all as creatures of God.  

The Holy Father sharpened his analysis of how care for the environment and care for humanity, especially the poor, are intricately linked. This is certainly the experience of Catholic Relief Services when environmental destruction and impacts of climate change destroy the livelihoods of innocent people in Latin America, Africa and Asia. 

Bill O'Keefe, Vice President for Government and Advocacy, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore, Maryland

This was an incredible talk that urged the world community in a compelling way to think about and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable. He was so clear that the challenges of climate change, war and violence impact them much more and we must act to help them now.

Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, President and Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Health Association, Washington, D.C.

Pope Francis' address at the United Nations was not a mere state of the world address. This was a galvanizing call to action filled with urgency. A call to treat the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten not as numbers and statistics, but as dignified individuals, beautiful, real men, women and children. A call to fight the buying and selling of our children around the world. A call for every boy and girl to have access to the basic human rights of an education, a home, good food, clean drinking water.

Again and again, in Washington and now New York, Pope Francis has spoken so beautifully about the dignity and rights of every individual. That too many are excluded.  

When he spoke about the culture of waste in which we live, and how we must fight this with selfless service to others, I thought of our kids at Covenant House. Beautiful, talented amazing kids who have been discarded by most of society. And yet children who are being saved every day by staff and volunteers who leave their own families to be family for homeless kids. It is beautiful and it is exactly what Pope Francis is calling us to do. I am inspired by this pope and I pray his message of mercy and action will save the lives of more homeless youth in desperate need.

Kevin Ryan, President and CEO, Covenant House International, New York, New York

"We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence." The words are carved in the Mediation Room of the United Nations building. The room was designed by Dag Hammarskjöld, former secretary general of the U.N. Within the room is a polished block of iron from Sweden, Hammarskjöld's homeland, reflecting the meeting of light, sky and earth.

In his address to the representatives from more than 180 nations, Pope Francis spoke of Hammarskjöld and captured how there is both an inward and outward sense to silence that results in wisdom: a prudential activity that accepts the transcendent, rejects an all-powerful elite, and results in service to all. This way of proceeding will bring us to the experience of justice which is a right relationship with God, others and the world.

Perhaps the right to lodging, labor and land articulated by Francis is what Hammarskjöld envisioned in the room of silence where light, sky and earth converge.

Thomas Curran, S.J., President, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri

Pax Christi USA resonated with the eloquent, simple and direct words of Pope Francis when he spoke to the U.N. about peace through nonviolence, resistance to systems that exclude, innate human rights of all people, and restoring the global climate to a level where all people can thrive and not merely exist.

Of particular interest to us were the concrete suggestions he offered. It is not enough to have dreams for peace with justice, but we must match those dreams with specific actions for justice that will be effective and practical for the good of all people.

We commend his courage as well as the challenge and support he has given to our movement.

Sr. Patricia Chappell, Executive Director, Pax Christi USA, Washington, D.C.

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.

Hans Kung, March 31, 2005, at the opening of the Exhibit on the World's Religions at Santa Clara University. 

The historic speech given today by Pope Francis is another example of his magisterium of action. He calls us to go out to the margins, but he also calls us to go to the heart. Sometimes he goes to the "heart of the matter" or "the heart that matters." Pope Francis came to the heart of New York to speak to the General Assembly of the United Nations where all member states were in attendance; the heart of inclusion and dialogue. The United Nations was founded to be the meeting place for the ongoing dialogue of peace. Pope Francis so respectfully reminded all of us, especially during the Year of Consecrated Life, of the gift of a universal fraternity that is the foundation of our dignity and the foundational witness of religious life. We are a family. ... Pope Francis spoke to all of us by reminding us [that] the home this family lives in is important [saying] "In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good." We are called to live in peace and be a family who strives to be careful stewards of God's creation. Francis said, "Creation is compromised 'where we ourselves have the final word. … The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'" 

We too in religious life can hear Pope Francis call to be servants and leaders who "do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom." This has long been the call of a vocation to service. It seems no accident that Pope Francis left the place of the great dialogue of peace to go and pray together with the world's religions. Peace in action. 

Building on the theme of the Year of Consecrated Life, to remember the past with gratitude, live the present with passion and embrace the future with hope, those of us living in religious life can be thankful and be impassioned by this visit from Pope Francis. We can be hopeful that the witness of this visit to the leaders of the world and the faithful in the United States is an ongoing inspiration to praise our God!

Very Reverend Brian A. Terry, S.A., Minister General, Franciscan Friars of AtonementPresident-Elect, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Garrison, New York

The Holy Father's speech today at the U.N. urged world leaders -- and all of us -- to refuse to accept the injustices of poverty and inequality. Pope Francis' request that we work together to ensure that men and women living in extreme poverty are "dignified agents of their own destiny" resonates powerfully with CMMB's vision of a world in which every human life is valued and health and human dignity are shared by all.

Bruce Wilkinson, President & CEO, Catholic Medical Mission Board, New York, New York

Pope Francis has been a compassionate voice and advocate for the world's most deprived and excluded.

At the United Nations General Assembly today, he called on global leaders to focus their attention and resources to ensure every family can live with freedom and dignity, and have the ability to meet their basic needs.

Save the Children shares his commitment to giving all girls and boys the opportunity to learn and protection from harm and exploitation. We've closely aligned our global strategy across 120 countries with the new sustainable development goals, working to end preventable child deaths, provide an education for all and to eradicate extreme poverty. Everywhere we work there are children left out of progress and that is wrong.

In the words of Pope Francis, no child is disposable or simply a statistic.

Carolyn Miles, President & CEO, Save the Children USA, Fairfield, Connecticut

We are grateful for the strong way in which Pope Francis advocated for action to support people living in poverty around the world. His is an important message coming at the same time the United Nations is approving new goals to focus global efforts to improve the lives of those suffering from poverty, disease and disaster around the world.

Michael J. Nyenhuis, President and CEO, AmeriCares Foundation, Stamford, Connecticut 

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to the NCR and lead writer for the newspaper's Mission Management column.]

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