WASHINGTON — Two political pundits accustomed to sparring with each other on television took the stage Feb. 5 at a gathering of Catholic social justice leaders to discuss issues near and dear to them: faith and politics.

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, commentators on the PBS program "News Hour," spoke at the closing session of the four-day Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington about poverty, the popularity of Pope Francis, immigration and world peace.

The two have become a fixture at the annual gathering, interjecting political jabs with one-liners and biblical references. They joked at this year's meeting that they have spoken at the ministry conference for as long as they can remember.

They started their discussion during a luncheon at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington by highlighting Pope Francis' appeal -- something they both agreed on.

Shields said he hoped the upcoming meeting with the pope and President Barack Obama, scheduled to take place March 27 at the Vatican, would provide a chance for the president to learn something.

"If there's an anti-insular pope, Pope Francis embodies that," he said, while quickly turning his observation into a jab against the president, whose contacts, he said, "are limited to those in the 312 area code," meaning Chicago.

Shields said the pope was a natural communicator and someone who has "brought a sense of communion and communication unrivaled in my lifetime."

He also described Pope Francis as a more successful politician than the president and suggested that may have been the reason behind the meeting because a "politician can smell someone who's a winner."

Brooks, without making any references to the president, similarly hoped that the pope would "convey his personalistic approach to issues" which he said was the only way to "heal poverty."

Shields, a Catholic, emphasized that Pope Francis' appeal is a "moment for the Catholic Church." He said people are impressed with his manner and style and can't help but hear his message that society "can't be indifferent to what's going on" around them.

Brooks, raised in the Jewish faith, said Pope Francis has not always shown the complete picture.

"He's emphasized the forgiving side of church, but there is a structure and a toughness to that structure," which also needs to be shown. The tricky part, he added, is to articulate that gently.

In discussing U.S. poverty, Brooks commended the federal government for moving toward "much stronger approaches" particularly by forming partnerships with social service agencies.

He said reducing poverty involves forming relationships which he termed a "soft and squishy direction."

"If you use the word love in congressional hearings, people will think you're Oprah," he said, but he also stressed that programs to eradicate poverty really do "need in place people who show love and care."

Brooks and Shields, who throw around political facts and figures from previous administrations without batting an eye, seemed to think immigration reform was on the way but not any time soon.

Regarding the situation in the Middle East, Brooks said it was in "worse shape than ever" and was not optimistic the regular peace talks were achieving much. "I hate to be a Debbie Downer here," he added.

Both pundits thanked the Catholic social justice leaders in the room for their work.

Brooks took his kudos to the group a step further by urging them to "be assertive" about their faith and to even dare to talk about the notion of sin, which he said has been lost in recent years unless people are talking about fattening desserts.

"Don't apologize and silence your faith and legacy of it," he said.

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, thanked the pundits for their encouragement and said it would enable participants to "go home with optimism."

"May we be a blessing to others," he said in a closing prayer.