Pope Francis made history as the first Pontiff to address a Joint Session of the United States Congress this morning in Washington, D.C.
The Holy Father was welcomed to the U.S. Capitol building by Speaker of the House, John Boehner. After several moments with Boehner, which included an exchange of gifts, the Pope made his way to the Hall of the House, escorted by a bipartisan group of senators and greeted with thunderous applause.
In his address, the Pope expressed his gratitude for the invitation to address the Congress.
“I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility,” he said.
Reflecting on the responsibilities of the representatives, the Holy Father reminded them that they are called to defend and preserve the dignity of US citizens. “Legislative activity,” he said, “is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
The Pope also said that the figure of Moses, whose image was directly across from the Holy Father in the Congress Hall, was a cause for reflection in the duties of the representatives.
“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,” he said. “On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. 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.”
The Pope went to express his desire to address all American men and women, particularly the elderly “who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience”. He also wished to address the youth of the United States, who face difficulties “often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults.”
“I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.”
Fundamentalism: A Warning Against ‘Simplistic Reductionism’
The Holy Father invited the Congress to reflect on the lives of four Americans in order to better carry out their duties: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Recalling this year’s 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, the Pope recalled the former president’s tireless efforts for liberty. That freedom, he said, “requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
However, the Holy Father also called attention to the rise in violence in the name of God and 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,” he said.
The 78 year old Pontiff also warned the Congress to be on guard against the temptation of simplistic reductionism that views thing in terms of good or evil.
“The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps,” he said. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
The Holy Father said that in order to combat this, the restoration of hope and the promotion of the well being of people must remain at the forefront. A new spirit of cooperation, he said, “demands that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
Remember the Golden Rule
Tackling the thorny issue of immigration and the refugee crisis, Pope Francis called on Congress to continue Martin Luther King’s dream of civil and political rights for all.”
“In recent 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,” he said.
In responding to the current crisis, the Pope offered the Golden Rule as the example that should be followed: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
The Pope went onto say that the Golden Rule also applies to life, which he stressed, must be defended “at every stage of its development.” He also expressed his support for the global abolition of the death penalty, stressing that all life is sacred.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
Caring for the Common Home
Continuing his address, the Pope recalled the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, whose “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
The Pope called on Congress to help those trapped in the cycle of poverty by giving them hope.
“I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.
It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.
Citing his recent encyclical on the care of the environment, the Pope reminded the US politicians that the earth is also included in caring for the common good.
“I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play,” he said. “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
The Pope also recalled the life of Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who he said was a man of dialogue and a promoter of peace.
He also lauded the country’s efforts to overcome differences, a reference to the recent reestablishment of ties between the United States and Cuba.
“When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”
“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. Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.
Basis of Marriage Called into Question
Explaining the reason for his visit, the 8th World Meeting of Families, the Pope expressed the importance the role of the family has in building the United States.
However, Pope Francis conveyed his concern that the family is currently 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,” he said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
The Jesuit Pope also called attention to the young and the vulnerable, many of whom are trapped “in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
“Their problems are our problems,” he said, followed by applause by the Congress.
“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. 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.”
“A nation,” he concluded, “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.”