Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
After several days of speeches, liturgical celebrations, restricted walkabouts, pep talks with fellow clerics and religious, one-on-one encounters with laity from various strata of society, and having survived intact the whirligig that is the U.S. media, Pope Francis has returned to the comparative slumber of life near the Tiber.
But it is a brief respite, for sure, as the most-hyped Roman Synod ever looms on the immediate horizon.
If the performance of Pope Francis in the United States is Act One, or at least a preview, of what to expect from the Synod, then it is a teaser, a lot like the Pope himself.
Francis teases his listeners – not by playing with them, by being coy or elusive, but by inviting them to think seriously "in dialogue." In other words, to tease out the implications of their faith and thought. From the very moment of his arrival at the White House, the pontiff emphasized the importance of dialogue, that he came to have a dialogue, and that in doing so he would be in listening mode.
This did not stifle his prophetic inclinations: He championed the cause of refugees and immigrants in a political orbit where security concerns are paramount and xenophobia lingers below the surface; he pushed for the elimination of the death penalty in a country that has long treasured it as the supreme cathartic punishment; he extolled the value of the person qua person in a society of atomized individuals seen primarily as both consumers and commodities.
And very importantly he deployed a rhetoric of healing, an irenic discourse that sought to build bridges (as befits the pontifex maximus) rather than demolish them. Rather than the Manichaean polarities, the "culture of life" versus the "culture of death" favoured by his predecessors, Francis opted for a "culture of care" versus a "culture of waste." The words ensure a new tone, a tone not of reproach but of invitation. We have a "common home" and we struggle for the "common good."
In keeping with the visionary Joseph Bernardin, the former cardinal archbishop of Chicago, who sought to find a "common ground" among Americans in general and American Catholics in particular, Francis invoked the Bernardin paradigm by including two storied Catholic figures in his list of American icons.
Alongside Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, he listed Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Day is a Servant of God, the first step on the way to being sainted in the Catholic Church, whose life of service to the poor is legendary. Anarchist, pacifist, unbending in her opposition to injustice, Day was fearless in taking on authority in service to the Gospel. A convert to Catholicism, one-time lover of playwright Eugene O'Neill, a leftist journalist who had an abortion, and a woman of implacable will; by choosing her over other current American candidates for sainthood – the television bishop Fulton Sheen or Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus – Francis opted for a figure who resonates with the young and inspires others outside the church.
In choosing Merton, Francis was bolder still. The famous literary figure and poet, social and political essayist, spiritual diarist and contemplative, became during his short life the model of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Merton was firmly rooted in his own religious tradition (like Day, he was a convert) but he was intellectually fearless in exploring new theological and mystical horizons, fought his clerical superiors as much as he submitted to them, and through his correspondence and friendship with such figures as the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hindu authority Amiya Chakravarty and the Zen master Daisetz Suzuki, he established a level of serious interreligious dialogue with few if any parallels.
Day and Merton – contemporaries, friends, rebels both, and enlightened disciples of Jesus.
If it is true that the quality of a person is in great measure to be gauged by the company one keeps, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen the best of American friends.