Of Popes and Presidents

President Obama’s trip to the Vatican is a coming home of sorts

President Obama shakes hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)
President Obama shakes hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)
As President Obama and Pope Francis lock eyes for the first time, I imagine that the pope’s pastoral presence has brought back many memories for our country’s Commander in Chief.

What most people don’t know is that while the president is not a Catholic in terms of religious denomination, he was certainly steeped in the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching in his early days as a community organizer in Chicago. Those days shaped most of his political social thought as well as his religious outlook. Take this quote from President Obama’s commencement address to graduates at Notre Dame in 2009:

And something else happened during the time I spent in those neighborhoods. Perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn — not just to work with the church, but to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.

This all goes back to 1987, the springtime of Barack Obama’s life. While working as a community organizer he was a well-known whirlwind of enthusiasm amidst the Black Catholic churches of Chicago. He made less than $10,000 a year, but he worked tirelessly with the Developing Communities Project, a faith-based program that organized the people living in the South Side to take back their neighborhoods from unsafe streets, poor living conditions, and political neglect.

Obama fit in well with those professing Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” teaching, which preached a consistent ethic of life. Essentially, this is Catholic teaching at it’s finest and reminds those that fight against abortion that they too, need to be concerned about the elderly, the poor, the care of newborns, and mothers who courageously bring their children to term and to be people of peace in avoiding war.

Cardinal Bernardin, the then-Archbishop of Chicago, inspired the future president who went on to lobby the Cardinal to buy into the Developing Communities Project by reminding him that this would help him fill the churches with community activists. Obama worked with Bishop Wilton Gregory, now the Archbishop of Atlanta (and rumored to be the next Archbishop of Chicago), who went to bat for the community development program with Cardinal Bernardin. Archbishop Gregory recalled Obama as someone “who wanted to engage the people of the neighborhood.” Archbishop Gregory found Obama’s work persuasive and he recommended that Cardinal Bernardin provide some funds for the program.

Obama’s time working with Catholic churches in Chicago and even at an office inside a Catholic church was chronicled in The New York Times over the weekend.

President Obama and Pope Francis disagree on some things surrounding the issues of life. And the president has preached more on helping the middle class than the poorest in our society (because that is how, after all, one gets elected). However, the two men uphold the ideals of a similar social justice mindset.

For example, of President Obama or Pope Francis, who said this:

We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

President Obama spoke those words at Notre Dame during his commencement address. Pope Francis will certainly find those words comforting.

Today, during the president’s visit, Pope Francis gave President Obama a copy of his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel). The president may be surprised and inspired by what he reads.

Perhaps Obama’s early days of community organizing in Chicago will be enough to stir a president and a pope to keep close ties with one another, to work together, and to remember that despite disagreement, we are all called to work for peace, justice, and love for all humankind.