Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in  Washington Sept. 24. CNS PHOTO BY PAUL HARING
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. CNS PHOTO BY PAUL HARING

Making history as the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis on Sept. 24 encouraged lawmakers and all Americans to welcome immigrants, have solidarity with the poor, and work together to protect the environment.

The history-making pope also praised the legacy of four noted Americans who he said demonstrated how to build a better future for this country: President Abraham Lincoln; civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and two 20th century Catholics – Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to serving the poor, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted world peace and dialogue with and respect for other religions.

Describing himself as “the son of immigrants,” Pope Francis noted that many members of Congress were themselves descended from immigrants, who came to the United States, like millions of others, “to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.”

Noting that the world was facing perhaps the most serious refugee crisis since World War II – as Europe is facing a tide of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and north Africa – Pope Francis said, “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities.”

The pope encouraged lawmakers to see immigrants as people worthy of respect and compassion. “Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves,” he said, citing the Golden Rule.

As he did in his recent encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si,’ Pope Francis urged people to enter into a dialogue to protect Earth, “our common home,” and to promote sustainable development that creates opportunities and a better life for the poor. As he did in his encyclical, the pope decried environmental destruction caused by human actions, and he said solutions must be found to combat poverty, restore dignity to the excluded and protect nature

“I am convinced that we can make a difference, and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play,” he said.

Addressing Congress – which is often accused of gridlock and partisanship – Pope Francis urged the lawmakers to work together to pursue the common good and to protect the God-given dignity of all human beings.

“We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good,” Pope Francis said. “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of those 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.”

Pope Francis warned about the dangers of religious fundamentalism that leads to violence. “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion,” he said, saying such violence and extremism must be opposed.

The pontiff also underscored the need to safeguard religious freedom. Praising the impact that religions and people of faith have had throughout the United States’ history, the pope said, “It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continues to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.”

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate listened in rapt attention as Pope Francis, wearing his traditional white cassock, delivered his address in English in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. Hundreds of invited guests watched from the balcony. Pope Francis was introduced by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who had announced in February that the pope had accepted his invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Dignitaries attending the address included Vice President Joe Biden; John G. Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States, and Associate Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor; and Secretary of State John Kerry. Catholic leaders watching from the balcony included Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl; Louisvillle Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State; and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, also attended the address.

Lawmakers interrupted the pope’s talk with applause about three dozen times, and offered several standing ovations. Pope Francis advocated moral issues and principles supported by some legislators and opposed by others, such as when he stressed “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” He also expressed support for the global abolition of the death penalty, saying that “just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Pope Francis urged a “spirit of global solidarity” in fighting poverty and hunger. He also urged lawmakers to promote dialogue and peace and to oppose the arms trade, which he said fuels armed conflicts around the world. The pope, who landed in the United States after visiting Cuba – where he praised the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between those two countries – told lawmakers, “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue… new opportunities open up for all.”

Noting that his visit to the United States will culminate in his trip to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis said, “Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which 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.” Young people today, he said, are especially vulnerable and in need of support and opportunities. He also praised the wisdom, and the ongoing contributions, that the elderly make to families and to their communities.

Lawmakers offered Pope Francis a standing ovation after he praised the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all,” the pope said. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’”

Praising the legacy of those four Americans whose example he highlighted, Pope Francis said, “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”

Pope Francis concluded his address by saying, “God bless America!” Lawmakers responded with another standing ovation.