Francis, the first pope ever to address the United States Congress, sought from the very beginning to find common ground between him and the 435 representatives and 100 senators that are its members. The pope provoked sustained applause from his first words, when he expressed his gratitude for the invitation to address this joint session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Many members of Congress were moved to tears as they strained to hear the pope speaking softly in English, a difficult language for him, even as he touched on a number of potentially incendiary issues in the U.S. Congress, from immigration to the death penalty and a consistent defense of life. The Golden Rule, he told Congress, requires us to respond generously to global neighbors migrating from the south and “also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
His mention of care of creation, care of migrants and care of the family in American life, threatened, he worried, by forces “from within and without,” drew sustained applause from Congress. A call to end the arms trade, which he suggested produced profit “drenched in blood,” drew a subdued response from Congress members. The United States is the world leader in arms exports. The pope included in his concerns for life a call to end the death penalty.
The pope touched on themes sure to be appreciated by Congressional Democrats, producing the occasional lopsided standing ovation that protocol minders hoped to avoid. Pope Francis stressed the importance of dialogue in resolving international disputes, a reference to Iran and Cuba, his endorsement of the need to respond to the crisis of climate change and the promotion of a more merciful response to global migrants. “We, the people of this continent,” he told Congress, “are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
He also added some points that were likely to cheer Republicans, defending life, the traditional family and religious liberty. Perhaps mindful of his reputation as a harsh critic of capitalism, the pope quoted his own recent “green” encyclical, “Laudato Si’,”: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (129).
Pope Francis knew that his address represented a unique opportunity to raise issues that are of fundamental importance to humanity and to influence the most powerful and richest nation on earth, and he did not waste it.
He spoke in a fraternal way to the lawmakers—30.7 percent of whom are Catholic—about the need to be especially attentive to “fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.” He said it’s necessary to guard against “the simple reductionism which sees only good and evil…the righteous and sinners,” and to “confront every form of polarization which would divide” the world “into these two camps.”
He affirmed that “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, “The world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War” and called for a response that is “always humane, just and fraternal.”
Pope Francis advocated “the global abolition of the death penalty” and “a stop to the arms trade.”
He insisted that “the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes” and said part of this great effort involves “the creation and distribution of wealth.”
He called for “an economy that is modern, inclusive and sustainable” and emphasized the vital importance of making “a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of environmental degradation caused by human activity.”
Pope Francis emphasized the need for dialogue and peace and building bridges between peoples. He urged greater determination “to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.”
Last but not least he recalled “how essential the family has been to the building of this country,” said it is worthy of “our support and encouragement.”
He delivered his talk in English, and drew on a number of key concepts of Catholic Social Teaching: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. He called for a renewal of the spirit of cooperation and insisted on the importance of dialogue to resolve problems.
Adopting a novel approach that would surely have surprised many people, and not just in Congress, Francis looked at the challenges of the world today and recalled that the anniversaries of “several great Americans” occur around this time, people that “were able by hard work and self-sacrifice—some at the cost of their lives—to build a better future” for their country.
“They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” Francis stated. He paid high tribute to this American spirit and declared that “a people with such a spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity.”
He said those “great” men and women “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality.” He then chose four Americans to look at and read the reality of today’s world: Abraham Lincoln (assassinated a 150 years ago), Martin Luther King (he led the march from Selma to Montgomery bus 60 years ago), Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. While the first two could be considered obvious choices, the last two were decidedly radical Catholics in the best sense of the word.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1809-1865)
Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, led the country through the civil war and in so doing preserved the Union, abolished slavery, strengthened the federal government and modernized the economy. He was assassinated 150 years ago this year.
Francis hailed him as “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation under God, (might) have a new birth of freedom” and said, “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
Then turning to the present day, Francis said “all of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried, by the social and political situation of the world today.” He described this world as “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. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind,” the Pope said,
He emphasized that “a delicate balance is require to combat violence perpetrated in the name of religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and religious freedom.”
Responding to these challenges he said, “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” He called for “a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”
The Jesuit 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.” He described such cooperation as “a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”
Recalling that “democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people” Francis emphasized that “all political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.” But, he added, “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.”
MARTIN LUTHER KING (1929-1968)
Francis recalled the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty 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,” he said, and added: “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
He recalled how in recent centuries, millions of people came to this land “to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom” and “remarked, “We, the people of this continent are not afraid of foreigners.”
“I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants,” Francis said. But, he acknowledged here also that the rights of the original inhabitants of this land “were not always respected”, and expressed “my highest esteem and appreciation” for them.
Today, he said, “if a stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
Saying we must constantly relate to others, Francis called for “rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal solidarity.”
He reminded the members of Congress—some 50 of whom were educated in Jesuit schools—that the world “is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the second world war.” This presents “us” with great challenges and many hard decisions, he added.
Francis spoke also about the many people who come from south America to the north “in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones,” and told Congress “we must not be taken aback by their numbers but rather view them as persons.” He called for a response that is “always humane, just and fraternal” and the avoidance of the temptation “to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
He spoke about the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”—and said it reminds us of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” And, in this context, supporting the American bishops, he called for “the global abolition of the death penalty.”
DOROTHY DAY (1897-1998)
The pope noted that at this time in history “social concerns are so important, and in this context he recalled Dorothy Day (1897-1998), perhaps the most famous radical in the history of the American Catholic Church who founded the Catholic worker, whose cause for canonization is now being examined.
“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints,” he said.
He acknowledged that “much progress” has been made in so many parts of the world “to raise people out of extreme poverty,” but he reminded Congress that “much more still needs to be done, and that in a time of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost.” He encouraged Congress “to keep in mind all those people who are trapped in a cycle of poverty” and said “the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”
He affirmed that “part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.” He said “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.”
Quoting from his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” he said “business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world” and can be a fruitful of source prosperity “especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
He reminded Congress that this “common good” also includes planet earth, about which he had written in the encyclical where he said—and repeated here—that in this regard “we need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge that we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
He told the lawmakers that in the encyclical he had called 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.”
“I am convinced—he said—that we can make a difference, 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.” He said he is confident that American “outstanding” academic and research institutes “can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
THOMAS MERTON (1915-1968)
At this point he recalled that a century ago, at the beginning of World War I, “another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people.” He recalled that Merton was above all “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
Speaking of dialogue, the pope said he wished “to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes in the past,” a clear reference to the accords reached between the United States and Cuba, and between the international community (including the United States) and Iran.
“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” Pope Francis stated. “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,” he said. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility” and “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,” the pope said.
“Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? he said. “Sadly—he stated—the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem.
Nearing the end of his talk, he summarized what he had said: “Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
He told Congress that he will end his visit by going to Philadelphia to take part in the World Meeting of Families. He said he wished that the family be a recurrent them throughout his visit here. “How essential the family has been to the building of this country,” it remains worthy “of our support and encouragement.” At the same time he expressed his 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.” He called attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young, and said: “Their problems are our problems. 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,” he said.
He told Congress: “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.”
He concluded by saying that in his talk he had sought to present “some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people” and added that “it is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.
“God bless America!”