Pope Francis crafted his speech to Congress by descriptions of the values of four great Americans — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — while reminding lawmakers of the relief portrait of Moses overlooking the chamber.
“On the one hand, 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. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being,” the pontiff said, gesturing at the plaque. “Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
“Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” he stressed. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
And the protection of all life was the central theme of the pope’s address.
First, with the example of Lincoln, the pope talked about a world that is “increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”
“A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms,” Pope Francis said. “But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
“…The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
The pope lauded American democracy, quoted from the Declaration of Independence, and stressed that “all political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.”
When he cited MLK, colleagues sitting around Civil Rights Movement leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) patted the congressman’s back. Lewis never took his eyes off the pope, yet looked emotional.
Pope Francis said so many decades after King detailed his dream, “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams.” That spurred a standing ovation from all lawmakers.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
At this point Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was emotional.
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” the pope continued. “For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
He added that “our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” which “presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.”
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal,” he said. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
The pope stressed that “the yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” he said, evoking another standing ovation and loud cheers from the GOP side of the aisle.
With a speech light on policy prescriptions, Pope Francis did say he supports the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ call to abolish the death penalty.
In citing the example of Day, and “her social activism, her passion for justice,” the pope called for “courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care'” for the Earth as well as the poor. “In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead,” he said.
From the perspective of Merton, the pope talked about dialogue, noting, “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”
He took a stab at the arms trade, asking, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
That, he said, summed up “three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
Pope Francis stressed the importance of the reason for his trip to the United States: the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said. “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.”
Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor were in the front row during this reference to same-sex marriage.
“In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions,” he said.
“At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
Pope Francis rounded out his speech with “God bless America!” He didn’t linger in the chamber long to hear his standing ovation, but made his way to the speaker’s balcony overlooking thousands gathered on the Capitol lawn.
Flanked by congressional leaders, the pope prayed for the audience before leaving to meet with the homeless at St. Patrick’s Church.
“What a day. What a moment for our country,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who dabbed his eyes at least three times during the speech, said after the pope left. “I’m so proud that so many came to greet the Pope here at our Capitol, the world’s greatest symbol of democracy.”
“The Holy Father’s visit is surely a blessing for all of us. With great blessings, of course, come great responsibility,” Boehner added. “Let us all go forth with gratitude and reflect on how we can better serve one another. Let us all go forth and live up to the words, God bless America.”