Pope Francis Addresses the U.S. Congress

(photo: Register Files)

The Scene on the Ground before the Pope’s Arrival

This morning, Pope Francis continued his visit to the United States, becoming the first pope in history to address a joint session of Congress. Ahead of his visit there, official organizers made some 50,000 tickets available to congressmen, their guests, and the general public. And, crowds began to arrive at the Capitol building in the earliest hours of the morning, many starting to queue up shortly after midnight.

As the world’s media trained its focus on the opening day’s event, journalists traveling with the pope emitted signals that the historic address would unleash fireworks. Listeners to the pope’s remarks would have immediate access to them as he would be addressing them in English for the second time during his US tour.

But, if the pope was going to deliver a rousing speech, his hearers would hand back to him a resoundingly positive reception.

Before the papal entourage headed toward Capitol Hill, crowds of well-wishers at the primary venue leaped to their feet and rushed toward jumbotrons showing the pope greeting the faithful outside the apostolic nunciature. From that moment forward, there was an unmistakable electricity in the air. The much anticipated moment had arrived. And, Americans were prepared to give the man introduced to them as the “Pope of the Holy See” rock star treatment.

When the pope arrived on the hill, he met briefly with the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner. An entourage of cardinals and bishops, including the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.’s own Cardinal Donald Wuerl, accompanied the pope during the brief meeting.

Inside the august chamber, elected congressional officers as well as representatives of other branches of the government, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, waited to welcome the pope. Notably, Catholic justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito did not attend the address. But Secretary of State John Kerry, a majority of Supreme Court justices (six out of nine of them, in fact), and members of the president’s cabinet did.

Moments before the pope entered the epicenter of American legislative politics, a hush fell upon the crowd. There was almost an air of reverent silence, as even Rachel Maddow of MSNBC observed.

Then, history happened.

The Pope in Congress

To the flashing of cameras, Pope Francis greeted Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, both Catholics, as well as the congressional officers and those he called his ‘dear friends.’ As he did at the White House, he identified himself as a “son of this great continent,” expressing gratitude for being welcome in the “home of the free and the land of the brave.”

In his remarks, Pope Francis highlighted three sons and one daughter of America as witnesses to the truth of humanity and the principles of a free and just society. He said he was conscious of the fact that his remarks were being made in the shadow of the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic to serve as executive leader of the nation.

Drawing upon this cloud of witnesses to the greatness of this land, he desired to impart words of encouragement for the building of a future of freedom, rooted in love of the common good and a spirit of cooperation and subsidiarity.

Moses, Patriarch and Lawgiver

He opened his remarks by stating that the work of the Congress “makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses.” This week, the Jewish people observed Yom Kippur. 

In one way, “the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation.” And, in another way, this illustrious figure “leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being.” Moses, honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, “provides us with a good synthesis of your work,” since “you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

The figure of Moses offered the pope a way to connect with his congressional hosts. Through them, he desired to appeal to all Americans in a spirit of dialogue. He said that, “Today, I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States.” And, he added that he wanted to take advantage of the 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.” In their faces, he sees those who “in their own quiet way sustain the life of society.”

President Abraham Lincoln, Guardian of Liberty

Pope Francis began the body of his remarks by speaking about President Abraham Lincoln who was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1846. The country lawyer turned statesman would have walked the halls of the original capitol building, completed 215 years ago in 1800.

Later this week, when the pope addresses the faithful in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the context of the World Meeting of Families, he will speak from the same lectern Lincoln used to address crowds at Gettysburg.

Lincoln, the pope said, is “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom.’” And, he said this task of “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity,” which favors what the pope called “a renewal of that spirit of cooperation.” America’s sixteenth president exemplified such a spirit.

Yet, one must be mindful of all those who seek to strike at this cooperative spirit. In this connection, the pope proved mindful of the fact that “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.” In his inaugural encyclical letter, Pope Benedict XVI took note of the same troubling situation. 

The pope pointed out the problem that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism,” calling for attentiveness “to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.” In response to this crisis, he called for a “delicate balance” capable of being used to “combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system.”

Such a balance must safeguard “religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms,” according to the pope. For him, there is an important and integral link between democracy and religious liberty. As he said at the White House, this cherished liberty honors and protects what is dearest to America. 

A well-ordered society requires freedom of religion, and indeed benefits from it. In this nation, the pope said, “various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society.” And so, “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.” Yesterday, Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters of the Poor who have been raising their voices against the Obama administration’s HHS mandate concerning insurance coverage of CASC services (i.e., counseling, abortion, sterilization, and contraception).

Such respect, according to the pope, requires avoidance of the “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” The pope offered a solution to this problem. In “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters,” we must seek pragmatic solutions that respond to the urgent “demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into their two camps.” Searching for such solutions demands that we strive to be “freed from the enemy without” even while overcoming the temptation “to feed the enemy within.” A message like this is what a divided congress most needs to hear now.

The pope contrasted such reductionist approaches to the true political vocation, which is dedicated to taking up these challenges and demands in “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good.” And, for the pope, it is Lincoln who honored this vocation in an exceptional way.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Liberty in Plurality and Non-Exclusion

The fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, occasioned Pope Francis’ reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. He described King’s march as “part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans.” And, he asserted that “That dream continues to inspire us all.” Yesterday, Pope Francis met with President Obama, the first black American to be elected president. 

The pope spoke about King as a dreamer and a man of dreams “which lead to action, to participation, to commitment.” His were the “Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people,” he said.

In remembering this American dreamer, the pope turned to those “millions of people [who] came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.” Speaking to his congressional hearers “as the son of immigrants” and “knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants,” he told his hosts that “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”

Responding to a controversy ignited by the canonization of Junípero Serra, the pope said that “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.” And, to them, he imparted a word: “For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” He continued in this vein by urging American citizens that “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.” Thus, “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.”

Yet, as universal shepherd and sovereign head of the Holy See, he was mindful of more than Native Americans and immigrants to these shores. He spoke of the refugee crisis, which is now approximating “a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” The Vatican has taken in two refugee families in recent weeks. 

Responding effectively to this crisis demands obedience to the ‘Golden Rule,’ according to the pope, who implored his hearers to “treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.” After all, he said, “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” For, “if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”

Speaking as an encouraging father whose children are confronting a mounting crisis, he said we ought to find the numbers of refugees arresting, but yet we must look beyond the numbers to see persons. In the context of this crisis, we must regard the refugee “as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.”

We must always be mindful of persons, more than problems. Continuing in this thread, he called for the “global abolition of the death penalty.” And, he offered his “encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Dorothy Day, Social Justice and the Rights of Persons

In speaking about the Servant of God Dorothy Day, Pope Francis described “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed” as “inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

At this moment in our history “when social concerns are so important,” she offers us a much needed example. She reminds us that “much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost.”

Day’s tireless service to the cause of the oppressed makes us mindful of “all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.” Even these ones, Pope Francis tell us, “need to be given hope.”

Here, the Holy Father took up the theme of business and the creation of wealth, claiming that “The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable.”

His commentary on the economy and business invited contrasts with his earlier statements about capitalism. Today, he read a comment from his green encyclical letter Laudato Si’ in which he stated that “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It is can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, n. 129). 

While his comments on the economy and business drew criticism previously, his more supportive approach today may well invite praise.

Despite favorable words for business leaders, the pope was careful to add a note of caution here. On the one hand, he warned against failing to “avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” But, he asserted that “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States -- and this Congress -- have an important role to play.” Thus, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a new ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

In this connection, he called for a green and personalist technology that can be placed “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.” This suggested a comparison with one of Pope Francis’ favorite theologians, Romano Guardini, who authored Letters from Lake Cuomo, which treated of the ill effects of technology. Looking to America, Francis noted that “I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”

Thomas Merton, Capacity for Dialogue and Openness to God

Speaking of Thomas Merton, a Cistercian and master of the spiritual life, Pope Francis described him as “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.” Yet, he stressed that “He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

Reading from Merton’s autobiography, he described the monk’s vision of hell, “full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.”

Such a vision, the pope contended, must compel us to take up the task of dialogue anew. He said “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” This task of dialogue and bridge-building, he continued, “means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.”

At this juncture, he made a bold call to end the arms trade, asking “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” Answering his own question, he asserted that “the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” Causing some in the chamber to rise to their feet in a standing ovation, he declared that “it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

But, whether a particular politician is taking up this or any other cause, a good leader is one who, “with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” He or she is one who is “always open to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.” Here, the pope alluded to the opening of relations between Cuba and the US.

Looking toward Philadelphia

Finally, the pope previewed remarks he will develop in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families. On this theme, he spoke boldly, saying that family is “threatened perhaps as never before” from both within and without. In particular, he expressed his desire to appeal to young people who feel “trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.” Firmly, he noted that the “very basis of marriage and the family,” at this historical moment, is “being called into question.” In response, he said he can only reiterate the richness and beauty of family life, which is something he will do in “an emphatic way” in Philadelphia, as he told US bishops yesterday.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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