It was a political speech, because of the topics he covered: the environment, poverty, the use and abuse of political power, violence, war, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, religious and ethnic persecution, and drug, human, and arms trafficking.
But more than political, it was truly a moral and religious speech, an “appeal to moral conscience,” that reminded us that we are not self-created. We are created by a loving God, who sets limits and boundaries on our actions.
These limits extend to how we treat the environment, others, and even ourselves.
Pope Francis spoke for only about 45 minutes, and he spoke in his native language, Spanish. He was passionate and determined as he spoke to the largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled at the United Nations in New York Friday.
He was unequivocal in stating that God sets limits on our actions. When we fail to recognize these “incontestable natural limits,” we fail to see that all life is sacred and that an “absolute respect for life” at all stages is a moral obligation.
We fail to see that we do not have the authority or right to abuse or destroy the environment.
We fail to see that we do not have the authority or right to absolute power over other human beings, or over our own bodies.
We fail to act for the common good.
We fail to see the sacredness of life.
Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, almost fifty years ago the first pope to speak to the United Nations, Pope Francis, the fourth pope to speak,* noted that this is a time for pause, recollection, and prayer.
It is a time to recognize, like Pope Paul VI, that the “real danger comes from man.”
It is a time, Pope Francis said, for an examination of conscience, in particular our moral conscience.
Only a deep examination of conscience, the pope seemed to say, will allow us to recognize that our lives are truly only complete when they are built on “selfless service to others.”
Only an examination of conscience, a complete resetting of our moral understanding, will allow us to build and pass on to our children a global culture that respects the boundaries God has set for us so that we can live in harmony with the environment of which we are a part, with one another, and with ourselves.
“Prophets of Reconciliation, Prophets of Peace”
In his remarks during an interreligious prayer service held at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the pope returned to the themes of working for the common good and self-sacrifice.
At Ground Zero, the pope said, “We mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good.”
Yet at the site of a great atrocity, men and women worked together for the common good in a valiant act of service to others and self-sacrifice.
Here, the pope said, “We also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of … . we “also witnessed the heights of generosity and service.”
In the hours and days after the attacks, the people of New York, the nation, and the world joined together in a spirit of brotherhood. “It was all about solidarity, meeting immediate needs, brotherhood. It was about being brothers and sisters.”
The pope noted in particular New York City’s fire fighters who “walked into the crumbling towers, with no concern for their own wellbeing.”
Some gave their lives so that others might live, he said.
The innocent who died and those who died to save the lives of others “will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.”
He then asked all to pray that we can truly become such prophets.
“Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end.”
“Jesus Is Joy; Jesus Never Abandons You”
The pope’s short address to the children, families, and teachers of migrants at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic school in East Harlem Friday afternoon was part history lesson, part catechism lesson.
But mostly it was a catechism lesson that these children have a good chance of remembering the rest of their lives.
School, the pope told the children in Spanish, is a second home where they are part of a big family.
It is a place their grandparents, parents, and teachers help them, and where they “help one another,” “share our good qualities,” and “pursue our dreams.”
Noting that nearby a street was named for Dr. Martin Luther King, he told the students that Dr. King dreamed of equal opportunity for all and that children like them receive an education. “It is beautiful to have dreams and to fight for them,” he said.
He encouraged the children never to lose the hope of a better world and greater possibilities, a hope shared by their parents. “Don’t stop dreaming,” he said.
He also told the students to “keep smiling and help bring joy to everyone you meet.”
He asked the children if they knew who brings sadness, distrust, and envy into the world. “The devil,” children responded. And the pope nodded yes, the devil.
But, he said, Jesus brings them the opposite. “Jesus is joy, and he wants to help us feel that joy every day of our lives.”
He asked the children if they would permit him to give them some homework. When they said yes, he asked them, as he has asked so many others, to pray for him.
He asked for their prayers so that he could pray with many others and could bring the joy of Jesus to others. He also asked the children to pray that others feel the joy that they feel.
“Jesus never abandons us,” he reminded them. And then – before praying the Our Father will all – he closed his remarks with a prayer. “May God bless you and the Virgin Mary protect you.”
Pope Francis was the fourth pope to speak to the United Nations, but this was the fifth time a pope has spoken. As Pope Francis noted in his speech, he was preceded by Pope Paul VI in 1965; Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995; and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.