September 24, 2015 — Pope Francis delivered a historic address before a joint meeting of U.S. Congress this morning. Welcomed with a standing ovation, he addressed not just Congress, but all Americans.
“Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States,” he said. "I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with 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," the pope said.
Making history by being the first pope ever to address a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis was introduced to the legislators by the House sergeant at arms as: "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See." The pope introduced himself, though, as a son of the American continent, who had been blessed by the "new world" and felt a responsibility toward it.
The past, the promise and the potential of the United States must not be smothered by bickering and even hatred at a time when the U.S. people and indeed the world need a helping hand, Pope Francis told the U.S. Congress.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In a long speech, he gave the sense that he sees the United States as a country divided, one so focused on calling each other names that it risks losing sight of how impressive it can be when its people come together for the common good. That is when it is a beacon of hope for the world, he said.
Again referring to himself as a "son of immigrants" — and pointing out that many of the legislators are, too — he pleaded for greater openness to accepting immigrants. “When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us.”
(Image via Ignatian Solidarity Network)
Speaking on the world’s refugee crisis, he invoked the Golden Rule: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. … On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons … Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Pope Francis condemned legalized abortion, the death penalty and unscrupulous weapons sales. "Every life is sacred," he insisted, calling for the "global abolition of the death penalty" and the "responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." He also called on Congress to "seize the moment" by moving forward with normalizing relations with Cuba.
The pope used four iconic U.S. citizens as relevant models of virtue for Americans today: Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
From top left: Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton
"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to 'dream' of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton," the pope said.
Describing political service with the same tone used to describe a vocation to religious life — "you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you" — the pope recognized the weighty responsibility of being a member of the U.S. Congress.
Dialogue, he said, is the only way to handle the pressure and fulfill the call to serve the common good, promoting a culture of "hope and healing, of peace and justice."
For the speech, Pope Francis stood in the House chamber in front of Rep. John Boehner, speaker of the House and a Republican from Ohio, and Vice President Joe Biden, president of the Senate. Both men are Catholics. Besides the senators, representatives and their invited guests, the attendees included members of the U.S. Supreme Court and members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet.
Pope Francis shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as the pope enters the House of Representatives Chamber. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
"It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society," Pope Francis said. The dialogue the country needs must be respectful of "our differences and our convictions of conscience."
Referencing his environmental encyclical, Pope Francis said that "business is a noble vocation" when it seeks the common good. And today, he told legislators, the common good includes protecting the environment and taking bold steps "to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."
A large crowd watched the speech on the Capitol's West Lawn. (Doris Yu)
Tens of thousands of people watched the speech on giant screens from the Capitol's West Lawn. Gathered hours before the pope's morning visit, they were entertained by military bands.
After his speech, the pope made a brief appearance on the speaker’s balcony. Speaking to the crowd in Spanish, he blessed the children: “The most important people here today, the children, I would like to ask God to bless them.”
Pope Francis appears with leaders of Congress, Vice President Joe Biden and church leaders on west terrace of U.S. Capitol. (CNS photo/Matthew Barrick)
He also asked for prayers and good wishes: "I ask you all, please, to pray for me, and if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way."
Pope Francis then headed to St. Patrick Church, where he met with those served by Catholic Charities. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” he told an audience of about 200 clients of Catholic Charities.
After his remarks at St. Patrick’s, he exited from a side door of the church to visit the main headquarters of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities agency, blessing the chapel there.
Outside the Catholic Charities office, many homeless clients receive a meal from the St. Maria’s Meals Program. He stopped at the line and told them with a smile, “Buen apetito!” — “Enjoy your meal!” — to applause followed by a swarm of outstretched arms and hands.
A girl hugs Pope Francis as he visits with people at St. Maria’s Meals Program of Catholic Charities. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis waded into the throng, waving and shaking hands, surrounded by nearly as many photographers and security agents as hungry people. He also posed for a number of selfies taken by ecstatic members of the crowd.
Pope Francis has made a visit with the poor and marginalized in society a hallmark of his pastoral visits to other nations, just as he has with visits to prisoners; a visit to a jail in Philadelphia is a part of the final day of activities of his Sept. 22-27 U.S. trip.
The visit to St. Patrick’s and Catholic Charities was his last publicly scheduled event in the District of Columbia before he headed to New York to continue his first visit to the United States. [Sources: CNS,PBS]