CAPITOL HILL—Pope Francis used his address to a deeply divided U.S. Congress to call on the lawmakers to renew “a spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
«A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,» Francis said, in the first papal address in Congress’ history.
«Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation,» the pope said. «You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
The pope touched on several sensitive issues during his 50-minute speech, including the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, the urgent need to coordinate global action to control climate change, and the excesses of capitalism and materialism.
Tens of thousands of people watched the proceedings from the Capitol lawn on Jumbotron screens. Hundreds more were gathered inside the packed House of Representatives chamber, including Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and lawmakers’ special guests.
The pope, speaking slowly and carefully in accented English, paused several times as waves of applause interrupted his reading, but observers in the chamber noted that not everyone joined the enthusiastic display.
Partisan divides among members of Congress – between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans – were reflected in their response to different parts of the pope’s message.
The Argentine-born church leader began by telling the lawmakers he was speaking through them to the American people – «the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and, one step at a time, to build a better life for their families.»
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2015.
«These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society,» Francis said. «They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.»
‘Treatment of newcomers’
The pontiff spoke of the need to respect indigenous people, saying that, tragically, “the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.”
He also reminded the lawmakers of the United States’ immigrant roots and warned against hostility to or harsh treatment of newcomers.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” Pope Francis said.
Francis acknowledged that the current refugee crisis, “a magnitude not seen since the Second World War … presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.”
He invoked the Golden Rule, saying: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”
That comment, which referenced the Syrian refugee crisis, drew the largest applause from the crowd on the lawn.
The pope, who is scheduled to visit a Philadelphia correctional facility on Sunday, reiterated the church’s support for the sanctity of human life and the end of the death penalty.
But Francis also encouraged lawmakers to allow a convicted lawbreaker the chance to reform and the hope of release.
The pope said he sees the United States as a nation whose people are inspired by the memories and values embodied in four famous Americans – former president Abraham Lincoln; the assassinated civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; Dorothy Day, a 20th-century Catholic social advocate who worked with the poor; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote extensively on spiritual issues.
Anticipation for the pope’s address had reached a fever pitch. And no one was more excited than the man who invited him, devout Catholic and House Speaker John Boehner.
In a special video, Boehner said lawmakers are very interested in what His Holiness has to say.
“His outreach to the poor, the fact that people ought to be more religious. He has got some other positions that are a bit more controversial, but it is the pope!” Boehner said.
Boehner, a former altar boy, has dismissed concerns that the politically engaged Francis will stir the controversies of the day.
«The pope transcends all of this,» he said. «He appeals to our better angels and brings us back to our daily obligations. The best thing we can all do is listen, open our hearts to his message and reflect on his example.»
Pope Francis has spoken out strongly about the dangers to our planet posed by economic injustice and climate change, and the Vatican has welcomed the Iran nuclear deal.
Pope Francis, accompanied by members of Congress, waves to the crowd from the Speakers Balcony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress inside.
The pope’s positions on these issues are closer to the views of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, than those held by leading Republicans.
Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona said he would boycott the speech because of the pope’s focus on what Gosar calls the “fool’s errand” of climate change.
On the Democratic side, Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinios contrasted the compassion of Pope Francis for migrants with the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
«In many ways, Pope Francis represents the anti-Trump, the antidote to his venom,» Gutierrez said.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio (R) meets Pope Francis in the U.S. Capitol building as the Pope arrives to deliver his speech to a joint meeting of Congress in Washington D.C., Sept. 24, 2015.
»Frankly the majority of Americans of all faiths and political stripes across the nation – are very much looking forward to the pope’s visit and the pope’s words because our nation needs a counterbalance, a counterweight to what has become the ugliest, most xenophobic, most anti-immigration campaign in anyone’s memory,» he said.
Billionaire businessman Trump has said some illegal immigrants are «rapists» and «criminals.»
The speech brought immediate reaction.
Senator Ted Cruz, who is also a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, said he welcomed “the pope’s call to put aside petty bickering and come together behind shared values to address the challenges facing us all.»
«We should show compassion to people across the globe. … We should welcome, we should celebrate legal immigrants … (that) is entirely consistent with the rule of law and securing the border. We should know who is coming to this country. When we speak of welcoming immigrants, I believe that should refer to legal immigrants,» Cruz added.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate, said, “The pope is playing an extraordinary role as one of the great moral leaders. Most importantly, what he said today: the function of an economy is not just to make the rich richer; the function of the economy is to serve all the people.”
Sanders has spoken extensively on the campaign trail about income inequality in the U.S.
Pope Francis waves from the Speaker’s Balcony after concluding his addresses before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Sept. 24, 2015.
After his address, Pope Francis briefly stepped out onto a Capitol balcony and waved to the cheering crowd on the West Front. Speaking in Spanish, he said, «I’m so grateful for your presence. The most important ones here, children. I’ll ask God to bless them.»
House Speaker Boehner became emotional during the pope’s brief comments and used a handkerchief to dab at his eyes.
Francis ended his remarks in English, saying «Thank you very much and God bless America,» which brought boisterous cheers from the crowd below.
After leaving the Capitol, Francis spoke to roughly 400 people at St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Washington, addressing parishioners, people served by Catholic Charities and choirs from two local high schools.
He called for charity and compassion toward the homeless and the least fortunate. And he said there is no social or moral justification for a lack of housing for the people.
Afterward, the pontiff was going to help serve lunch to homeless people who are regularly fed by Catholic Charities.
Pope Francis was to depart from Washington later Thursday to fly to New York.
Later Thursday, the pope will travel to New York City, where he will celebrate Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
On Friday, he will address the United Nations General Assembly.
On Saturday morning, he’ll travel to Philadelphia for this weekend’s Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.
On Sunday, he will celebrate an outdoor Mass, which is expected to draw nearly 2 million people.