President Barack Obama has just met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. It is always an important event when the president of our nation meets with one of the most important religious leaders in the world, regardless of who occupies either office at the time of such a meeting.
There are topics I would have liked to see these two men discuss, but I, like most of the world, am not privy to most of their conversation. What I hope is this: that these two men, who have considerably different worldviews, are able to set aside differences for a meaningful discussion with fruitful results.
I think back a few decades to the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. While the two had basic Christian beliefs in common, they were shaped as men by very different experiences. While Reagan was serving stateside in the military during WWII, Karol Wojtyla was trying to not starve to death in World War II Poland. Reagan was an American through-and-through; Pope John Paul II saw the world through the wide-angle lens of a philosopher. Yet, they both cared deeply about human freedom. Their work together (along with Margaret Thatcher) brought down a wall in Berlin and ended the Cold War.
We are not in that same kind of war right now (thanks be to God), but we have a deep divide in our nation and in our world. Religious liberty is at the core of this divide. President Obama speaks of "freedom to worship" rather than "freedom of religion" – a dangerous distinction. Christian persecution is at an all-time high in many parts of the world. Americans with deeply-held beliefs find themselves defending those beliefs in courts of law. Who could have imagined this, even a few years ago?
Millions of Catholics recently celebrated Lent, a time we seek to increase our faith through prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. At the "half-way" point of Lent, we celebrate "Laetare Sunday" or "Rejoice Sunday." That may seem a bit odd, given the somber mood tone of the Lenten season. However, the point of Laetare Sunday is to remind us that even in times of difficulty there is reason to celebrate, there is joy in grief, that even the harshest of circumstances have moments of happiness.
There is a beautiful passage from Isaiah:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you. (Is. 35:1-4)
This entire chapter is full of glorious images: flowers blooming in the desert, streams that are lush and full. It is a respite in the desert; a place to relax and rejoice, to gather strength and refresh oneself. We need this as humans; we need to stop and restore ourselves in order to continue to fight for what is right.
Among the first words that Pope John Paul II spoke in his papacy echo the prophet Isaiah: "Be not afraid!" Pope Francis has certainly shown the world that he is a man of great joy, and has repeatedly asked the faithful to share the joy of faith with others. Being brave and joyful are not easy things to do in our world today. It is much easier to cower, to grieve, or to be bitter. We cannot do this. Good men and women – of all faiths – must be willing to do what is not easy. We must do as the prophet demands: fear not! We must strengthen our feeble and weak selves, take strength in the beauty of God's creation, and continue the work of Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and countless others who value the freedom to practice religion freely, openly, and with great rejoicing.
Rev. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.