WASHINGTON – Pope Francis used the lives and work of four Americans as theme of his historic speech Thursday to a joint meeting of Congress.
The pope didn’t shy away from policy pronouncements that many members of Congress would disagree with, including opposition to the death penalty, the need to curb climate change, to slow the widespread sale of guns, and to deal with immigration and poverty.
Although the gathering resembled a State of the Union speech – Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner sat in chairs behind the pope and four Supreme Court Justices and the Cabinet sat in the front row – members of Congress were advised to limit their reactions. But they stood and gave a long ovation when he entered, applauded at several points during the speech and stood to applaud as he left.
After the pope thanked Congress and praised “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the room erupted in a lengthy applause.
From that remark on, he issued a call to action in his gentle manner.
He confronted the issue of immigration with Martin Luther King’s premise that a dream is the “deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” said the Argentinian-born pope, calling himself a son of this continent.
He pleaded that an open and understanding mentality toward the struggles of immigrants is needed to deal with the hotly debated issue.
He linked the refugee crisis in Europe with Syrians and Iraqis fleeing violence to immigration in the U.S.
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” he said.
The faces and stories of the people, not their numbers, should be the focus of the crisis, he said.
Keeping with the focus on the individual, Pope Francis maintained that “much more still needs to be done” in lifting people out of poverty. To that effect, a modern, inclusive and sustainable economic model should be established.
Continuing with his plea for sustainability, he cited his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” when he spoke about global climate change and the challenges it presents, calling it an essential part to the “common good.”
“We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” he said.
He called on everyone to “redirect our steps” to stop the most pressing side effects of the environment’s deterioration.
The pope didn’t shy away from policy pronouncements that many members of Congress would disagree with, including opposition to the death penalty.
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development,” the pope said, reminding the audience of his advocacy for the abolition of death penalty worldwide since the beginning of his ministry.
In addition, the pope criticized violence perpetrated in the name of an economic system, which by excluding the poor, is in effect being unjust and unworthy of human morals.
He called Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, an example in the fight for social justice. Day fought to end inequality. He said her “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith.”
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” he said.
He also touched on a physical threat – the arms trade. He blamed the mentality of profit at any price, thriving in the capitalist free-market system, for arms trade deals.
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold sufferings on individuals and society?” the pope asked. By referencing current world conflicts, he reminded his congressional audience that hope, peace and justice should prevail over responses of force and brutality.
The pope said he used the guidance of Thomas Merton, an influential Catholic writer and crusader for peace and civil rights, who died in 1968. Merton was a Cistercian monk who lived in Kentucky.
“We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good,” Pope Francis said.
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