Pope Francis discusses immigration, climate change, the death penalty and more during his address to Congress. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
He was pointed at times, urging the abolition of the death penalty and the end of arms trading, and warning of the dangers of religious extremism worldwide. And he was oblique at points, never mentioning the United States’ rapid embrace of single-sex marriage, but saying that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
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.”
To showcase his focus on the poor, immigrants and the disenfranchised, Pope Francis went directly from the grandeur of Capitol Hill to St. Patrick in the City Church, in a neighborhood that has flipped over the last decade from marginalized to magnet. There, he prayed with people who variously wore suits and torn T-shirts, a gathering that included the homeless, the mentally ill, abuse victims and new immigrants.
The pope began the third day of his first visit to the United States in the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a devout Roman Catholic who had invited three popes over two decades to speak to Congress, and was visibly proud that one of his invitations at last had been accepted.
At 10:01 a.m., the pontiff was ushered into the packed House chamber, introduced by the House sergeant-at-arms, who said: “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.
Although members of Congress largely avoided the ostentatious displays of partisan cheering that have come to characterize the president’s annual State of the Union addresses, an ideological divide was apparent at times. In response to Francis’s passage about climate change, Democrats mostly stood and cheered, while some Republicans stayed seated and applauded mildly, if at all.
But the response to the pope’s passionate words about embracing immigrants seemed to strike a bipartisan chord. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a presidential candidate and son of Cuban immigrants, wiped away tears as the pope called himself “the son of immigrants.”
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.”
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.”
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 that many in Congress are also children of people 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.”
Francis’s emphasis on immigrants dovetailed with the major theme of his American trip so far, a series of reminders that his papacy is very much about renewing the church’s focus on the poor and the powerless. The pope earlier this year opened a 30-bedroom homeless shelter just steps from the Vatican. He had showers set up for homeless people in St. Peter’s Square, and invited about 150 homeless people to a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel.
In Philadelphia, where he will end his U.S. visit, the pope will visit a prison to meet with inmates. In Washington, he pointedly scheduled his visit at St. Patrick’s immediately after his hour in the majestic House chamber. The plain sanctuary of the 220-year-old downtown church was filled with people who need basic life services. But as Pope Francis noted, “In prayer, there is no first or second class.”
“I need your prayers, your support,” the pontiff said, standing at a simple wooden podium before a reverentially silent flock. Would you like to pray together?”
The hush broke like the uncorking of a bottle: “Yes!”
Later this 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. He will remain in the United States through Sunday.
Americans are largely supportive of the pope’s engagement on economic, social and environmental issues. 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.), skipped 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.”
The many lawmakers who were inside the chamber on Thursday emerged with bipartisan agreement that the pope’s central message was simple: Just get along.
“It was as if he knew of the frictions and factions and reminded us that we’re here for a greater purpose,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). If some of what the pope said made members of either party uncomfortable, that was “the right thing,” Collins said. “The pope’s purpose was to challenge us, and he did so.”
But although Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) agreed that the pope’s words were bold, he worried that politicians would translate the message into partisan positions. Would Francis’s message of unity and common purpose endure in a bitterly divided Washington? Cuellar was blunt: “Knowing this Congress’s history, not for long.”
On the Capitol Lawn, many of those who watched the pope’s congressional address on giant video screens came away persuaded that Congress should — but probably won’t — take his message to heart.
“I was not expecting him to address the bipartisan divide,” said Emily Warn, 62, a writer from Seattle. “It’s as if he was trying to heal Congress. He gave them a homily, trying to broaden their view.”
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.”
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 he had canonized on Wednesday.
The pontiff then joined Vice President 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. He said a few words of thanks in Spanish and then, to great cheers, switched to English: “Thank you very much, and God Bless America!”
Among those gathered below was Liliana Morfin, born in Argentina, now living in Indiana. She 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.”
At an environmental rally on the Mall, a few blocks beyond the Capitol Lawn gathering, E.A. Dyson, 41, of Northeast Washington, pronounced himself impressed with the religious leader. “You have reconciliation of science and faith — that they don’t have to be exclusive,” he said. “There is room for science, religion, justice, economics and the environment.”
At St. Patrick’s, the pope preached about St. Joseph, “the one I go to whenever I am in a fix.”
Noting that Jesus came into the world as a homeless person, Francis said: “You may ask: Why are we homeless, without a place to live? These are questions which all of us might well ask. Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live?”
Minutes after Francis left the sanctuary, two women lingered in a pew toward the back. Tears poured down Catalina Gallego’s face. Lilian Juarez stood beside her friend, her hands holding the pew back tightly.
“For me, we are in heaven, with this missionary from God,” Juarez said, her voice and hands trembling. “When I feel him coming through, it’s full of peace, it’s like God hugs us and makes us all together, even if we are different colors, social backgrounds — it’s like a new church. We have to keep taking care of each other! Poor! Rich! He has something special. He is not like the others.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, DeNeen L. Brown, Pamela Constable, Jessica Contrera, Ed O’Keefe, Michael E. Ruane and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.