Last Thursday, students and members of the faculty congregated at the University Center Gaming Lounge to watch a historic moment unfold. With a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis watching over, those in attendance witnessed a reigning pontiff address the United States Congress for the first time in history. During this address, Pope Francis urged for constructive dialogue, kindness, and shared social responsibility.
Almost 3,000 miles away from USF, former President of the University, Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., sat outside the Capitol listening to the pope’s speech while rubbing shoulders with some of the nation’s most important political figures.
Pope Francis arrived in the United States on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed him. The first major event of the tour took place the following day in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at The Catholic University of America, where the pope celebrated Mass. During the Mass, he canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan Friar known for starting nine Spanish missions in California in the 1700s. Privett joked that he got to celebrate that moment with the pope, “along with another 1200 priests and 300 bishops.”
Privett, who did not plan on flying out for the pope’s visit, only decided to attend after Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, a close friend of his, extended an invitation for him to join her and her family for the event. While Pelosi sat inside the Capital with all of the other members of Congress, Privett sat outside on an elevated seating area of the west side of the building. Privett says he was right underneath the Capitol Hill balcony where the pope greeted the adoring crowd, who heard him acclaim, “God Bless America.”
Privett sat next to Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of The Catholic Health Association of the United States. Keehan was a key proponent for the Affordable Healthcare Act, and one of the people, along with Nancy Pelosi, responsible for convincing Congress to approve it. “She and Nancy Pelosi are responsible for our having ObamaCare. If it were not for those two women we would not have national healthcare,” said Privett, who continued by explaining their roles in the negotiations.
“[Keehan] was the one who explained to Catholic members of Congress that this health care plan, in spite of what the bishops were saying at that time, is completely consistent with Catholic social teaching. Nancy Pelosi was the one who did the politicking. She is the one who delivered the votes,” said Privett.
The occasion, however, was not without complications. “The security lines were unbelievable, and I’d know because I’ve been to presidential elections and this was just over the top. For both the mass and the capitol speech you had to be in your seat an hour and a half before everything started,” said Privett.
Privett’s admiration for the pope, however, far surpassed any resentment he felt toward the security detail. “I had opportunities to go see Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict from the audience and I turned down both, but this guy I really wanted to see,” said Privett. He continued by explaining his inclination to favor Pope Francis over his predecessors. “I was struck by the contrast between him and Pope John Paul II, who is like a rockstar on a stage, versus [Pope Francis] who is this very normal person who has tremendous resonance with people. The same thing happens with Pope Benedict, who is a terrific theologian, but who could never connect with people in the way that [Pope Francis] can.”
Many observers have praised the Pope’s speech as a redefinition of Catholic policies with the potential to create reconciliation efforts across the aisle. Privett, however, does not necessarily see it that way. “I wouldn’t look at him through the lens of American politics, liberal or conservative. He is not political in that sense, but his message has political consequences.”
Privett continued, “For example, he invoked the Golden Rule– do unto others, as you would like them to do unto you– and who is going to argue with that? He simply took this principle that nobody could argue with, and tells people to look at immigration through that lens, look at the economy through that lens, look at the Earth through that lens.”
When asked if he thought that the pope had revolutionized the position, Privett laughed and exclaimed, “He has normalized it. The papacy was so whacko, it was abnormal. We have had popes on gold thrones and velvet capes, and Mercedes Benz with a throne instead of a backseat. There used to be nuttiness surrounding the pope, and [Pope Francis] is just so normal. He opens his own door, he carries his own briefcase, and he gets a smaller car. All the stuff that a normal person would do.”
Since his appointment in March of 2013, Pope Francis has begun and continued the dialogue for many social issues and current events that concern the lives of not only Catholics but all people. When asked if Pope Francis had now made it a responsibility of the position, and a duty of future popes, to be so heavily involved in social issues, Privett simply answered, “I hope so.”
Photo courtesy of John Boehner