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Pope Gives Nods To Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day In Speech At Congress


And in that address today, Pope Francis named four Americans whose dreams represented, in his words, fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. Those four were Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., whom the pope saw as fighters for freedom, and two lesser-known figures, both Catholic - Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Our religion correspondent Tom Gjelten is here to fill us in on their stories. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with Dorothy Day. The Pope introduced her as the servant of God, Dorothy Day. Does that phrase mean something significant?

GJELTEN: It does, actually, Ari. It means that she's officially on her way to becoming a saint. There are four steps to go through to become a saint, and being designated by the Church as a servant of God is actually the first step. She's an interesting figure. She was a lay Catholic, not a nun but hugely important in the U.S. Catholic Church - social activist and also an especially devout woman. There's actually a big movement in the Church to make her a saint. The U.S. Bishops Conference has voted unanimously to promote her canonization.

SHAPIRO: Well, talk about that juxtaposition and the fact that the pope chose somebody who was, as you say, both devout and a social activist.

GJELTEN: Right. She is, as I say, very interesting. She lived - mostly, her work was in the first half of the 20th century. In her early days, she was a radical. She was drawn to socialism. She flirted with communism. She was a pacifist and anarchist. But she became quite religious, converted to Catholicism and was known for her devotion. She went to mass every day. She took her sacraments very seriously.

SHAPIRO: And what do you think it says about the pope's own views that he chose her of all people to highlight in this high-profile speech?

GJELTEN: Well, I think Dorothy Day, in a sense, brings together the two wings of the Catholic Church. The left wing of the Church can identify with her social activism. She founded the Catholic Worker magazine. She vigorously supported the labor movement. On the other hand, she was a champion of Catholic orthodoxy on many issues. Though she actually had an abortion as a young woman, she became very pro-life later on, which endears her to more conservative Catholics. So she's a hero to both wings. And by highlighting her, the pope can highlight his own view of himself as a bridge builder.

SHAPIRO: Well, from Dorothy Day, let's pivot to the other lesser-known Catholic in the speech, Thomas Merton. He was a monk. He became famous writing about his own spiritual awakening and was very popular in the 1960s.

GJELTEN: That's right, Ari. He was active also in the mid-20th century and yes, very spiritual. He wrote that he belonged to God, not to himself. He said to belong to God is to be free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this Earth. So not surprisingly, with that worldview, he was drawn to the Eastern religions, to Buddhism in particular, and that's one of the reasons he was especially popular in the '60s when Eastern religions were getting a lot of attention.

SHAPIRO: It was also interesting. The pope described him as not only a man of prayer but also, quote, "a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time."

GJELTEN: Right. And there again, he could've been - the pope could've been talking about himself because Thomas Merton, in spite of being very spiritual, was very provocative. He was active in the antiwar movement. He was active in the movement against nuclear weapons. So there, he has that in common as well with Pope Francis, who considers himself a ruler of peace between people just the way he described Thomas Merton.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, when you take these four people altogether - Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, along with Lincoln and Dr. King, what do you take away from what the pope is trying to portray about himself?

GJELTEN: Well, he doesn't like to be pigeonholed that way. Dorothy Day is, on the one hand, a heroine of the pro-life movement. And for all the tension that the pope has gotten for talking about immigration issues and climate change, it's important to consider something else he said today, and that is that he thinks that the family should be seen as a recurrent theme of this trip. We shouldn't underestimate that. He actually has some very traditional ideas about marriage and family.

SHAPIRO: Thanks. That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.