WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Pope Francis summoned U.S. lawmakers Thursday to defend and preserve the dignity of all Americans, introducing himself as “a son of this great continent” as he became the first Roman Catholic pontiff in history to address a joint meeting of Congress.
Entering a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, and lawmakers of both parties, Francis united the often-warring factions before he opened his mouth as the crowd stood to deliver a standing ovation. The sergeant at arms intoned “Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See,” and Francis made his way up the center aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as lawmakers applauded enthusiastically, some inclining their heads in bows.
The Argentine pope spoke from the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches. Behind him sat Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics. Boehner was shown throughout the speech tearing up.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility,” Francis said in his opening remarks. “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.”
“Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” Francis said. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
The pope talked about immigration and the current refugee crisis, stating that we must view them as people and not just numbers.
“We must not be taken aback by the numbers, but rather view them as persons, see their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to the situation,” Francis said. “Let us remember the Golden Rule: do unto others as you will have them do unto you.”
The pope called for a “delicate balance” in fighting religious extremism to ensure that fundamental freedoms aren’t trampled at the same time.
He told Congress that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
He said religious, intellectual and individual freedoms must be safeguarded, while combatting violence perpetrated in the name of religion.
The pope cautioned against simplistically breaking the world into camps of good and evil.
During his speech, the pope said that family life is threatened like it has never been before.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened by perhaps as never before,” he said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
The pope touched on Martin Luther King, mentioning the civil rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.
“The dream continues to inspire us all and I am happy that America continues to be for many a land of dreams,” Francis said.
The pope told Congress that action must be taken against climate change, calling it an “environmental challenge.”
“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. I am convinced we can make a difference I’m sure, and I have no doubt that the us and this congress have an important role to play,” he said.
Francis also called for the global abolition of the death penalty.
“I am convinced that this way is the best since every life is sacred,” he said.
Lawmakers of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations eagerly welcomed the pope, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them and hear him out. Outside, tens of thousands of spectators gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol and beyond, and many more were watching on TV around the world.
Indeed, Francis arrived at a moment of particular turmoil for Congress, with a partial government shutdown looming next week unless lawmakers can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group’s practices providing fetal tissue for research. Boehner himself, who invited Francis to speak and met with him privately beforehand, is facing a brewing revolt from Tea Party members who’ve threatened to force a floor vote on whether the speaker can keep his job.
Francis steered clear of such controversies, alluding only in passing to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion when he noted, to applause, “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
Following his speech to Congress, the pope took to the Capitol Hill balcony, greeting thousands that were waiting on the lawn, asking them to pray for him and that God bless them. Francis also reached out to atheists, asking non-believers to wish him well.
“And if there are among you who do not believe or cannot pray I ask you please to send good wishes my way,” he said.
Libby Miller of Frederick, Maryland, said her friends all told her she was crazy for going to Capitol Hill with her 4-year-old son, Camden, and 2-year-old daughter, Avery. Miller, armed with toys, snacks and a sippy cup, found a spot on the Capitol lawn and said she wanted her kids to be there for an important moment in history. They won’t understand it now, she said, but “they’ll get it eventually.”
Ahead of Francis’ remarks lawmakers of both parties had busily sought political advantage from his stances, with Democrats in particular delighting in his support for action to overhaul immigration laws and combat global warming and income inequality. One House Republican back-bencher announced plans to boycott the speech over Francis’ activist position on climate change, which the pontiff renewed alongside President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
But Boehner, a Republican and a former altar boy who invited the pope to speak after trying unsuccessfully to lure the two previous pontiffs to the Capitol, has dismissed concerns that the politically engaged Francis will stir the controversies of the day.
“The pope transcends all of this,” said Boehner, who met on his own with Francis before the speech. “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.”
Francis enjoys approval ratings the envy of any U.S. politician as he’s remade the image of the Catholic Church toward openness and compassion, yet without changing fundamental church doctrine. Addressing a chamber full of elected officials Thursday, he may be the most adept politician in the room.
After speaking in the House chamber Francis stopped by the Capitol’s Statuary Hall and its statue of Father Serra, the 18th-century missionary whom Francis elevated to sainthood Wednesday in the first canonization on U.S. soil.
Later, he planned to stop at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.
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