Pope Francis delivered the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress in history Thursday, encouraging bipartisan collaboration on issues ranging from social justice and immigration rights to the environment and traditional American values.
Following the nearly 40-minute address, the pope appeared on the balcony of the Capitol to greet the tens of thousands of onlookers gathered on the West Lawn.
He initially called upon members of Congress to fulfill their duties as representatives of the people, explaining that this entails helping all members of society, especially the poorest.
“Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” Francis said. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who have elected you.”
The pope also spoke about the threat of social and political injustice.
He said that polarization occurs through persecution and violence, which further undermine the system. To meet this challenge, he called for mutual conversation and openness.
“Our response must … be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice,” Francis said. “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.”
He added that the “golden rule,” which stipulates that people should treat others with respect, is at the core of these issues.
“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” Francis said. “This golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
He declared that his speech was meant to inspire a dialogue within the American people, specifically praising Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton for being Americans who he said best furthered the American dream.
“These men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able, by hard work and self-sacrifice … to build a better future,” Francis said. “They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”
The pope concluded by returning to these Americans and using each as an example of how the United States is and can continue to be great. He said that the nation must continue its commitment to freedom and equality with the goal of giving as many people, especially those in younger generations, as many opportunities as possible.
“I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people,” Francis said. “It is my desire that this spirit continues to develop and grow … God bless America.”
The speech elicited notable reactions from members of Congress, as the pope was interrupted several times by standing ovations. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was one member of Congress who was also visibly moved to tears during parts of the address. Eighteen House members and seven Senators in the audience were Georgetown alumni.
Government professor Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., spoke to the importance of the pope’s presence in D.C. and the message he communicated in his address.
“I was very impressed,” Carnes said. “It is incredible to think about a pope addressing Congress, as it is something the Founding Fathers never envisioned.”
Carnes said he appreciated the pope’s universal message that appealed to both congresspeople and those on the West Lawn.
“In speaking to Congress, he knew he wasn’t just speaking to Congress,” Carnes said. “He was speaking to every American citizen. … He urged us to go beyond rhetoric and political divides and advised that we translate challenges like poverty into faces and not just numbers.”
Carnes said he was particularly moved by the pope’s comments on the poor.
“His whole papacy has been trying to raise our consciousness to those who are on the margins,” Carnes said. “We can easily overlook those who are poorest, not as educated and do not have as many opportunities, and he wants us to remember that our best instincts are to care for those people.”
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry, said that the pope effectively touched upon many current global issues, encouraging people to engage in dialogue and hopefully yield solutions.
“This is not a single-issue pope,” O’Brien said. “He usually talks about the ‘seamless garment’ of issues and I think he hit most of the major ones facing this Congress.”
O’Brien said he believed Pope Francis’ speech was well-received due to the bipartisan support it seemed to have in Congress.
“When you think about who was in that chamber, you had very conservative and very liberal members of Congress and he was very well received,” O’Brien said. “I think people respect him not as a political leader but as a leader with moral weight.”
Following a university viewing of the address in the Healey Family Student Center, Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Scott Fleming and Center for Social Justice Research Executive Director Andria Wisler led a brief panel discussion.
Fleming noted that his main takeaway from the address was the pope’s emphasis on dialogue. He alluded to the upcoming potential government shutdown and wondered if the pope’s remarks would help avert it.
“The attention that he put on common dialogue, coming together and solving problems [was encouraging],” Fleming said. “For the most part, even those who did not necessarily agree with what they thought he was pointing to eventually stood up and applauded.”
Wisler said that she appreciated the pope’s comments on how society, economy and politics are directly related to how citizens conduct their daily lives. The point of Pope Francis’ speech, according to Wisler, was to encourage citizens to make the world more just and humane.
“Pope Francis is simply a pope for and about social justice,” Wisler said. “I think his message today to Congress really proved that because he implicates every single person in this work.”
Cameron Bell (COL ’19), who attended the HFSC live stream, also appreciated Pope Francis’ message of dialogue. She said the speech was an example of how the pope’s words can transcend political beliefs.
“I think it was really well done with respect to making his intentions and his beliefs clear,” Bell said. “But [he was] also being mindful of different opinions and making it a discussion that everyone wanted to hear.”
Grace Laria (SFS ’19) also attended the live stream and said that the pope’s speech, while touching on a number of political issues, furthered his message of justice and peace, rather than advocating a specific partisan solution.
“He did cover things really broadly so that he didn’t alienate members of Congress,” Laria said. “I think everyone heard him in their own way and can use that message, which is really fantastic.”
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