During his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis left us with a vast wealth of remarks and speeches that will provide us with much spiritual nourishment in the weeks and months to come.
One such example is his speech to a joint meeting of Congress, the first time in American history that a Pope has addressed that legislative body. In his remarks to Congress on September 24, Pope Francis paid special tribute to the contributions of four great Americans – two Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and two non-Catholic Christians, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this series, we will examine in greater detail the lives of these "great Americans," how they symbolize America and American values, and why Pope Francis chose them as symbols of Catholic teaching and virtue in his speech to Congress.
The first figure mentioned by the Holy Father was Abraham Lincoln – a name familiar to virtually all Americans as the 16th President of the United States, who guided our nation through the dark days of the American Civil War of 1861-1865.
Pope Francis called Lincoln "the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that this nation, under God, might have a new birth of freedom." "Liberty" in this context can be taken quite literally, as Lincoln preserved the union through a bloody civil war fought largely over the question of slavery and, with his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freed over three million slaves from their bondage with the stroke of a pen.
However, "liberty" or "freedom" in the Catholic context also connotes the ability to initiate and control one's own actions for the greater good – or the greatest good, which is perfection in God. "There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin." (CCC 1733).
Perhaps more than any figure in American history, Lincoln stands for the idea that true public service demands that an individual pursue the public good rather than their own personal ends, even to the point of sacrificing themselves for the higher good (as Lincoln ultimately did when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865).
As the Holy Father stated, "All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity…Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good; that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life."
These are important words to keep in mind as we Americans in the 21st Century – over 150 years removed from the presidency of Abraham Lincoln – face enormous challenges that require us to sacrifice our own needs for the interests of the common good. Many of the issues that we face today and many that Pope Francis championed in his recent visit – immigration, the environment, the sanctity of human life, marriage, religious liberty – will require us to summon the courage to "move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good."
In particular, the Holy Father placed a special emphasis on the importance of religious freedom and liberty, topics which have garnered special attention in recent years related to the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act and the question of marriage. The significance of this issue was reflected in his visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor and his speech in Philadelphia at Independence Hall on September 26. But the Pontiff also raised this matter during his comments on Abraham Lincoln before Congress, stating, "It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society."
As the Holy Father so eloquently illustrated, Abraham Lincoln's legacy as a "guardian of liberty" is one that we continue to share in today.