Pope tells Congress to ‘renew spirit of cooperation’

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Pope Francis, in his historic address to Congress Sept. 24, encouraged and prodded the most powerful nation in the world to dig deep into its soul and act according to its greatest - if not ever-present - convictions.

Using four figures from U.S. history, two of them lesser-known Catholics, the pope covered a range of politically charged topics, including immigration, climate change, religious freedom, abortion and the death penalty. Both Republicans and Democrats found things to feel uncomfortable about and to cheer for.

Yet Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas and the first to address Congress, spoke through the lens of faith, not politics, and to values that "endure forever in the spirit of the American people."

In accented but steady English, the pope said his talk was directed at members of Congress, whom he called "the face of (the country's) people," as well as the entire United States.

"I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day's work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and - one step at a time - to build a better life for their families," he said.

Last March, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), speaker of the House, invited the pope to address Congress. An emotional Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden, both Catholics, sat behind the pope during his speech.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly one-third of the members of Congress are Catholic.

Along with representatives and senators and their guests, attendees included members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet and members of the U.S. Supreme Court. A number of Roman collars and habits dotted the guest area of the gallery, and outside the Capitol, tens of thousands of people watched the speech on a giant screen.

Before drawing upon "the historical memory" of Americans, the pope turned to the Bible. The life of Moses, he said, provides lawmakers with a good synthesis for their work: "You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human life."

Pope Francis repeated the term "dialogue" throughout his lengthy speech, and nearly every call to action was focused on protecting the most vulnerable, especially the young.

He offered Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day - whom the church has named a "servant of God" - and Thomas Merton as images not of perfection but of America's potential.

Lincoln illuminated themes of liberty, and King was used to underscore the importance of "liberty in plurality and non-exclusion" and those dreams "which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people."

In his selection of Day, a social activist, journalist and atheist-turned-Catholic, and Merton, a contemplative Trappist monk and mystic, the pope introduced complex individuals who underwent profound spiritual transformations.

Evoking Day's work with the poor, he encouraged Americans "to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty; they, too, need to be given hope."

In his high-profile remarks, the pope indirectly celebrated the normalized relations with Cuba, in which he played a critical role, and said it is his duty to "build bridges and to help all men and women … do the same."

Addressing religious freedom, the pope said we must strike a "delicate balance" to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion or an ideology while also safeguarding religious, intellectual and individual freedoms.

"No religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism," he added.

In a direct but pastoral tone, the pope called on lawmakers to embrace a spirit of cooperation in all their efforts, to "move forward together, as one, in a renewed sprit of fraternity and solidarity."

Although he did not specifically refer to abortion, the pope insisted that it is "our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."

Echoing his ongoing criticism of "a throwaway culture," the pope said we must "avoid the common temptation nowadays to discard whatever proves troublesome."

It is this respect for all human life that informs his abhorrence of the death penalty.

"Every life is sacred," he said.

Pope Francis called on America to remember the simple, albeit difficult, "Golden Rule." As the House erupted in applause, the pope said: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us," he added.

With the family as the recurring theme of his visit, Pope Francis said the family is "threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without."

"Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."

On immigration, a hot-button issue amid election year punditry, the Argentine of Italian decent said that for centuries "millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners."

The pope drew liberally from his recent encyclical, "Laudato Si'" ("Praise Be to You"), and called for "a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects on the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

In one of his most direct words to the lawmakers, he said that "this Congress" has an "important role to play" in these efforts.

Within his encyclical, subtitled "On Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis is critical of unrestrained business interests driven by greed. However, in quoting the same document, the pope called business "a noble vocation," and said it "can be a fruitful source of prosperity … especially if it sees the creation of jobs."

"It was a powerful address," said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a Catholic, in an interview after the speech. Smith is co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus and has authored anti-human trafficking legislation since the 1990s.

He said the talk built on past popes' support for the defenseless and unborn. "He calls us to protect all life - the unborn, refugees, those with disabilities.

"Especially with regard to the unborn, he says it's wrong to remain silent; we cannot look the other way," he said.

Catholic Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who wiped away tears during the talk, said it was "a very emotional experience" listening to the address. Kaine worked with Latin American Jesuits in the early 1980s and has been impressed with the first Jesuit pope since his early papacy.

He liked that the pope anchored the speech in four Americans, especially Day and Merton, whom he sees as rich sources of spiritual wisdom. "He used all of them to help remind us of our best selves," said Kaine, sitting in his Senate office moments after the pope left the Capitol to meet with Washington homeless.

Kaine said the speech also set high expectations for lawmakers, when, "frankly, we're in a line of work where people have low expectations of us."

"We even have low expectations for each other," he said. "The pope was here to say … the world needs you to be great leaders."

"Foremost it was a pastoral speech," said Father Edward J. Bresnahan, chaplain of Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, who heard the talk outside the Capitol with a handful of Ireton students. He said he believes the pope's frequent use of the word "dialogue" is a summons to respond to his challenging words.

It is now our job, said Father Bresnahan, "to find out how we can answer this beautiful message of transformation."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015