Pope Francis, a son of immigrants making history’s first papal address to the U.S. Congress, implored America’s leaders on Thursday to accept immigrants as their own children, putting aside political differences to embrace those who “travel north in search of a better life.”
In a speech that gently but firmly urged Americans to move beyond the partisan paralysis that year after year has prevented Congress from making progress on immigration reform, the pope wrapped traditional Catholic teachings into a celebration of American icons, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., drawing lessons from their work as he urged Congress to spurn the modern tendency toward polarization.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility,” the pope said in heavily accented English. “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.”
On the third day of his first visit to the United States, Francis — a symbol of unity for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics — arrived at the Capitol in his black papal Fiat, shook hands with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and made his way to the House chamber, where members of Congress had been repeatedly warned not to shake the Holy Father’s hand or jockey for selfies with the pontiff.
The pope nevertheless reached out to shake one hand, that of Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Boehner, a devout Roman Catholic who had invited three popes over two decades to speak to Congress, was visibly proud that one of his invitations had been accepted. The speaker met the pontiff in his office before the speech. On Wednesday, he described the papal visit as “a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a glimpse of grace.”
Pope Francis, who had never before visited the United States in his 78 years, crafted an address that was saturated in American references, with special praise for the nation’s role as “a land which has inspired so many people to dream.” He urged the abolition of the death penalty and the end of arms trading and warned of the dangers of religious extremism worldwide.
But he saved his most specific prescription for combating climate change, a cause on which he said the United States has a special obligation to lead.
“I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” the pope said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference — I’m sure. And I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”
Perhaps in response to critics’ argument that he is antagonistic to capitalism, Pope Francis tempered his call for action with a statement of support for the role that business plays in society, calling it “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
“The creation and distribution of wealth,” he said, is a vital element in the fight against poverty and climate change.
Those looking for signs of this pope’s political direction could find evidence in the speech’s repeated references to a pantheon of liberal heroes, from Dorothy Day, who dedicated her life to a battle against poverty and war, to Thomas Merton, whose “Letters to a White Liberal,” written in 1963, urged Christians to follow their faith in service of extending civil rights to black Americans.
The pope praised King for his focus on “liberty in plurality and non-exclusion;” Day for “social justice;” and Merton for “dialogue and openness to God.”
At 10:01 a.m., the House sergeant-at-arms announced: “Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See.”
Those words formally launched an event that would have been politically impossible through much of American history, when Catholics — especially waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — suffered widespread discrimination.
Since the election of John F. Kennedy as the nation’s first Catholic president in 1960, however, the gates to political power have opened wide to Catholics.
In speaking before Congress, the pope took the central position in a tableau reflecting a wholesale shift in Catholics’ place in the United States. Vice President Biden (D), who is also Catholic, sat behind him, next to Boehner. In front of him were four justices of the Supreme Court — including three of the six Catholics who currently sit on the nine-member court.
Today, the pope said, the world is “increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
In that troubled place, he said, it’s especially important for leaders to do what great Americans have always done — reject extremism and renew “that spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”
With quotations from the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”) and from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Pope Francis implored Congress to “reject a mindset of hostility” and embrace the immigrants who come “to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.”
The pope, noting his own status as the son of immigrants as well as the fact that many in Congress are similarly closely connected to those who made the risky journey to America, said the nation must follow the Golden Rule and “treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.”
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” he said, “but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
Americans are largely supportive of the pope’s engagement on economic, social and environmental issues. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday found that 59 percent of those asked thought such speeches by Francis were appropriate; 31 percent said they did not.
But American Catholics, who make up about one-fifth of the U.S. electorate, remain deeply divided over their church’s directives. One Catholic congressman, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), has announced he would skip the pope’s appearance, to protest Francis’s advocacy for strong action against global climate change and what Gosar sees as the pope’s failure to speak out “with moral authority against violent Islam.”
“When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” Gosar wrote in a column on Townhall.com.
Francis did not specifically mention the divisive issue of church doctrine about homosexuality, but he made his allegiance to traditional teachings clear, ending his address with a warning that the family “is threatened, perhaps as never before. . . . Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
And in a country where the old-line Catholic population is diminishing because many families are having fewer children — though a wave of Hispanic immigrants is partly making up for that decline in numbers — the pope spoke to young Catholics, especially those who are “disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.” They will have children, he said, only if the nation provides them with a greater sense of “possibilities for the future.”
Although members of Congress had been admonished for days to refrain from demonstrations that could be viewed as partisan, some couldn’t help themselves from responding to what they saw as the pope’s most provocative lines — including on immigration and on the sanctity of life.
Following the address, Pope Francis walked through the Capitol’s second floor to Statuary Hall and paused at the statue of Junipero Serra, the California missionary whom the pope canonized on Wednesday.
The pontiff is then joined Biden, Boehner, and other congressional leaders on the Speaker’s Balcony overlooking the West Front of the Capitol, greeting an enthusiastic crowd that numbered in the thousands.
Among those gathered was Liliana Morfin, born in Argentina, now living in Indiana, stood with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, thrilled to be close to her pope, the first from her country.
“I feel like he is so close to me,” said Morfin, who, like her relatives, wore blue-and-white Argentine soccer team jerseys with the pope’s name emblazoned on the back. “He may be so far, but he is close. Whatever he will say, I agree with him.”
Beyond the Capitol Lawn, activists who agree with the pope’s call for more decisive global action on climate change are staging a rally to coincide with his visit.
“The pope is the only honest world leader on climate change,” said Lynn Raskin, 70, a District resident who was handing out free packets of wildflower seeds at the gathering. “We want Congress to wake up and learn from his message.”
Also on the Mall were sisters Deborah Jorgensen of Upper Marlboro, Md. and Caroline Tirabassi of Buffalo, N.Y. After standing for five hours to see the pope’s parade Wednesday, they had expected the Mall to be nearly as packed. But they found a mostly-empty lawn — and exceedingly loud speakers — when they arrived at the climate-change rally near 3rd St. SW.
The sisters set up their blanket without a single person blocking their view of the Jumbotron screen. They said they looked toward the pope for strong direction — and the sense of compassion for which he’s known.
“He has said there’s forgiveness for those who have had abortions, which is remarkable,” Jorgensen remarked.
In keeping with a trip designed to showcase this pope’s focus on the poor, immigrants and the disenfranchised, Francis was to go directly from Capitol Hill to the downtown headquarters of Catholic Charities, where he is scheduled attend a lunch for about 300 people who take part in St. Maria’s Meals, a weekly lunch for the homeless, the mentally ill, abused women and new immigrants.
Late in the afternoon, Francis is scheduled to leave Washington, flying to New York, where he will end his day with evening services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. His U.S. journey continues through Sunday, ending in Philadelphia.
Pamela Constable, Jessica Contrera and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.