He did not call them saints, but I am going to bless them as saints. I am not Roman Catholic, so I can take all their saints and add some. And I think in his heart of hearts, Pope Francis would agree with me. In his recent speech to the US Congress the Pope referenced these four people for very specific reasons. I found the speech inspiring and his framing of the speech around these four people a clever move to speak to the American people.
Pope Francis used each of the four saints to make a particular point. I was pleased with the four people he chose. His four saints include Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Two of the four would be universally known in the United States. Three of the four have lived during some part of my own lifetime. We all know when Lincoln was assassinated. Both King and Merton died in 1968 and Dorothy Day died in 1980.
In a paragraph near the end of the address to the US Congress, Pope Francis gives his reason for choosing these four. He lines up each one with the theme he wants them to introduce and to which he calls each and every one of us to emulate. The Pope says it this way: “Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
It is easy for me to see all four people as people of faith and, therefore, I call them saints. And the themes the Pope associates with each of the four I also see as spiritual. Let’s look briefly as each theme to see how deeply spiritual his message to the Congress really was.
First is Abraham Lincoln, the champion of liberty. “And freedom for all” goes the phrase which Lincoln was willing to do everything possible to be true for people of all races. This squares with the creation story, which declares that God creates all sorts of diversity and, I would argue, wants to bless that diversity. Diversity clearly is a key theme of the Pope and all of us are encouraged to work for it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued that same theme of liberty, which in his case more often was talked about as freedom. “We shall overcome” was the phrase I and so many others sang in the ‘60s as we worked for another kind of civil war---a war against racism, sexism and others who were not get a fair share of the cultural goodies. I like the Pope’s word, non-exclusion. That was the dream of MLK. His dream should still be our dream---and that on a global scale.
Dorothy Day was a daring, challenging, warm woman of faith. She drove some of the people in the church nuts and, likely, alienated a fair share of people outside the church. Her quest for social justice was a ministry involved with the poor and the down-and-out. She founded the Catholic Worker House and these still are active in our own day. She was tireless in her work to ensure the rights of all people. Her call to justice through love is still a clarion call for each one of us to do our part and to do better.
Thomas Merton is the one I know best. Every other year I teach a seminar on Merton. I visit his monastery in Kentucky every chance I get. He routinely bugged his abbot and, I’m sure, plenty of the monks who had to put up with him. Saints are not always the man or woman most likely to succeed in our culturally crazy world. Merton struggled with being faithful or famous. Because he was such a success as a writer, fame was always there to seduce him. But he stayed in the monastery, stayed true to his vows and stayed the course to be as faithful as he knew how to be.
I like how Pope Francis framed Merton. He lauds him for his capacity for dialogue. By the end of his life, Merton was in dialogue with Buddhist monks, Protestants, Muslims, Taoists, feminists and a host of others outside his natural Catholic, monastic setting. While he was seldom allowed to travel outside the monastery, it seems as if he was always “leaving home” or “bringing others to his home.” That work must continue in our own way in our own day. This is what the Pope dearly wants.
And Merton is appreciated for his openness to God. As any reader of Merton knows, he continued to grow in his faith and his witness. In his vow to be faithful to the living God, he also was pulled into a vow to be open to whomever God wanted him to become and wherever God wanted him to go. That same quality of openness the Pope hopes for in each one of us. And I would like to think, that quality is what God wants, too.
These four saints at work in the words of Pope Francis are calling each of us into our own spiritual relationship with God and work for God in the world. We, too, will be blessed.