By David K. Shipler
Washington’s adoring reception of Pope Francis has been cleansing. Scrubbed of the toxic rhetoric that passes for debate in this town, his simple truths have been elevating. His calls for human decency have been inspiring. His embrace of dialogue as he faced Congress this morning was not merely a pleading but a moral teaching. And despite the tiresome babble of CNN commentators trying to squeeze his various messages into familiar political boxes, Francis summoned the best in America with a challenge to lift our gaze beyond those boundaries and see again, with exhilarating clarity, the reasons for our great ideals.
You do not have to be Catholic, or even religious, as I am not. You do not have to agree with every view that Francis holds, as I do not, to see him as a hero, a secular hero badly needed in the tumultuous vacuum of righteousness that afflicts our time.
The modern era has precious few: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev (if you’re not a Russian who detests him), Malala Yousafzai (have you forgotten her already?).
We need heroes. We need figures to admire. We need our lives driven by something larger than ourselves. We need to play a part in a higher purpose. Occasionally, someone of goodness, or a mission of virtue, comes along to satisfy this yearning. As often, probably more often, it is someone of malice—or a corrupted idea. Religion can be either. As Francis said today, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”