Vatican City—More than a dozen members of the U.S. Congress traveled to the Vatican Jan. 8 to present Pope John Paul II with the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of his efforts to defend human dignity and promote peace.

In the Clementine Hall, under frescoed figures representing the virtues of religion, justice, charity and mercy, the bipartisan delegation gave the Holy Father a standing ovation as well as the heavy gold medal and a framed copy of the bill.

Sen. Sam D. Brownback, R-Kan., told the Pope, “In a world that has become darkened in many places by a culture of death, you stand in contradiction, fearlessly proclaiming a culture of life.”

The senator said John Paul gave people hope and tirelessly proclaimed a message of peace that the world urgently needs to hear.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told the Holy Father the ceremony was an expression of “our gratitude to you on behalf of our nation.”

The speaker told the Pope he was being honored for “preaching the message of love and truth” and for being an “advocate for the poor and oppressed, a voice for the unborn and the aged.” He also highlighted John Paul's “pivotal role in the downfall of communism.”

“May your influence be as strong in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century,” Hastert concluded.

Pope John Paul told the group of 50 members of Congress, their spouses and staff members, “I am honored by the gracious gesture which brought you here.

“It is not for the successor of the Apostle Peter to seek honors, but I gladly accept the Congressional Gold Medal as a recognition that in my ministry there has echoed a word that can touch every human heart.”

Proclaiming the word of God, he said, means proclaiming the dignity of the human person created in God's image. This is what leads the Church “to promote human life,” the Holy Father said.

“This is a truth which we contemplate in the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead,” he continued. “In the years of my ministry, but especially in the Jubilee Year just ended, I have invited all to turn to Jesus in order to discover in a new and deeper ways the truth of the human person. For it is Christ alone who fully reveals man to himself and makes known his sublime dignity.

“To see the truth of Christ is to experience with deep amazement the worth and dignity of every human being, which is the Good News of the Gospel and the heart of Christianity,” he said.

The Pope said he accepted the medal as a sign that the legislators “recognize the importance of defending human dignity without compromise so that your nation may not fail to live up to its high responsibilities in a world where human rights are so often disregarded.”

For Father Daniel P. Coughlin, the audience marked the end of an amazing year. First, he became the first Catholic appointed chaplain of the House of Representatives, then both houses of Congress passed bills honoring the Pope.

“Life is a continuous surprise,” Father Coughlin said after the papal audience.

The medal is a sign that “the Holy Father through the years has been so respected,” he said. “People respect strength, and the Pope is strong and so persistent.

“We Americans have such great ideals of human dignity and human life; now we have to live up to those ideals,” the chaplain said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-leader of the Senate delegation, told reporters afterward, “This was a fantastic moment for the U.S. Senate.”

The Pope, said the famously pro-abortion senator, “has really stood up for freedom, human rights and the dignity of people.”

The delegation included not only Democrats and Republicans, but people of different faiths. Some knelt before the Pope and kissed his ring, while others shook his hand.

The Holy Father gave each member of the delegation a medal in return — a bronze medal marking the 23rd year of his pontificate.

The six Senators present included Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both noted Catholic pro-life voices. The House delegation included Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is well-known for his international pro-life work.

According to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, the delegation also included: l Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. l Reps. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.; Joseph Moakley, D-Mass.; James A. Leach, R-Iowa; Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y.; Robert E. Cramer, D-Ala.; Christopher John, D-La.; and Don Sherwood, R-Pa.

The Gold Medal Pope

What follows is the address of Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Mr. Speaker,

Members of Congress,

Distinguished Guests,

I am pleased to welcome you the Vatican this morning, and am honored by the gracious gesture which has brought you here.

It is not for the Successor of the Apostle Peter to seek honors, but I gladly accept the Congressional Gold Medal as a recognition that in my ministry there has echoed a word that can touch every human heart.

It has been my endeavor to proclaim the word of God, which on the very first page of the Bible tells us that man and woman have been created in his very image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26).

From this great truth there flows all that the Church says and does to defend human dignity and to promote human life. This is a truth which we contemplate in the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead. In the years of my ministry, but especially in the Jubilee Year just ended, I have invited all to turn to Jesus in order to discover in a new and deeper ways the truth of the human person. For it is Christ alone who fully reveals man to himself and makes known his sublime dignity (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22).

To see the truth of Christ is to experience with deep amazement the worth and dignity of every human being, which is the Good News of the Gospel and the heart of Christianity (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 10).

I accept this award as a sign that you, as legislators, recognize the importance of defending human dignity without compromise, so that your nation may not fail to live up to its high responsibilities in a world where human rights are so often disregarded.

Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for this Congressional Gold Medal. In offering my good wishes for the New Year, I invoke upon you, your families and all whom you represent “the peace of God which is beyond understanding” (Philippians 4:7). May God bless you all!