I was reminded, watching the Pope's appearance on the Capitol balcony--perhaps irreverently--of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity" that Ellie and I attended several years ago. It was a rapturous crowd of many thousands that greeted the Pope, not all of them, I'm quite sure, Catholics come to acknowledge their spiritual leader. What attracted them, I think, was not religious fervor so much as the desire for sanity in a country (and a world!) whose sanity I have come--along with millions of others, certainly--increasingly to question. We showed up at the Stewart/Colbert rally for the same reason.
I watched Pope Francis's speech to the joint session of Congress, too. And heard at least some of the punditry that followed. Was it political? Was it inspirational? Was it left, was it right? Did conservatives sit on their hands whilst liberals applauded? Did he step on any toes, transgress his boundaries?
What impressed me most was the quiet sanity of the speech. It was a speech filled not with flights of rhetoric but rather plain common sense. It was filled, not with polemic, but with praise. Then, too, I heard none of the post-speech pundits talk about the tone in which it was delivered--a tone that combined conciliation, inner strength and moral authority with calm compassion, unself-righteousness and unfeigned modesty. These are qualities notably lacking in our current crop of lawmakers and our candidates for the Oval Office, but qualities that we yearn for in our political dialogue, qualities we respect in our fellow human beings.
Francis brought with him to the balcony that bearing--the physical manifestation of his speech's tone of voice. His presence, it seemed to me, was healing rather than divisive. As a skeptic when it comes to religion, I tend to cringe from blessings that invoke a God I don't believe in; but the Pope's blessing seemed to come not from on high, but from his heart. It felt genuine, not pro forma. There was a true connection between him and the crowd--even the non-believers he included in his blessing.
There are many things on which I differ from the Pope and the dogma of his church, but these do not stand in the way of my appreciation for one who appears to be a true moral leader in a world that badly needs them. It's evident that he shares much in common with the Dalai Lama, the recipient of a similar adulation and the purveyor of similar common sense. They permit me to feel that there is still humanity left in the world, and still some hope for the future of our species. Our instinctive esteem and affection for such people suggests that there is still room for compassion and sanity in the human heart and mind.