As I sat in the House Gallery to hear the speech of Pope Francis, I wondered what was more unlikely: a Jesuit pope from Argentina or a pope addressing the U.S. Congress, lifting up Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as examples of the best of American values.
I was honored to be the guest of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Speaker Boehner at this historic occasion. It was almost surreal, a solitary figure in white standing before Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, two Catholic kids from Pennsylvania and Ohio, united in faith, divided by politics, both clearly moved by the moment. As I’ve said before, their generation heard that John Kennedy should not become president because he would take advice from the pope and now they lead legislative bodies that can only agree that they need advice from the pope.
The floor was jammed with members of the House and Senate, nearly a third of them Catholics. John Roberts was there, leading a Supreme Court with a majority of Catholics (where were Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito?). The members of the Obama cabinet, also one third Catholics, marched in. Each Senator and Representative had only one ticket for a seat in the gallery. They went to spouses and children, bishops and sisters, priests and leaders of Catholic charities. The lucky few included presidential candidates Chris Christie and Ben Carson, Fr. Robert Siraco, the free market advocate of the Acton Institute, and Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus. The press gallery was standing room only, including a few editors who took their reporters places to be a part of history.
What did we see and hear? We saw a global pastor deliver an American homily, an authentic leader in a place of constant posturing, a message drawn from the Gospel, not the latest polls. We saw a man straining to be heard in a place and language unfamiliar to him. I told reporters that Pope Francis is the ultimate Washington outsider. He had never been to the United States, and is more comfortable with the poor and vulnerable than the rich and powerful. Francis sees the world, politics, economics, the church from the bottom up, from the outside in. These are not the priorities or ways of Washington.
Those who predicted or worried that Francis did not understand or appreciate the United States were disappointed or relieved. The address was deeply respectful and profoundly American. It was respectful in affirming the values and contributions of the “land of the free and home of the brave.”
The address was about America from a leader from the Americas. He came as a friend and neighbor, not a judge or critic. He looked to our history and found four “great Americans” with their “many differences and limitations,” who “shaped fundamental values which will endure in the spirit of the American people.” He suggested their lives and values offer principles and a path to heal our polarized politics, divided society, unjust economy and violent world.
He gave the golden rule new urgency. “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 son of immigrants, he asked us to see the faces and hear the stories of our new neighbors. He warned against dangerous fundamentalism which leads to violence or demonization of others. Francis said “our response must be one of hope and healing, justice and peace.”
It was a challenging, but hopeful appeal insisting that by working together the Congress could promote racial and economic justice, could protect God’s creation and human life and dignity. In appealing for dialogue among leaders and nations, he offered an example of civility and reasoned discourse that challenged our leaders and the rest of us to move beyond partisan, ideological and religious divisions to advance the common good.
The response in the packed Chamber was fascinating. From the awkward initial announcement, “The Pope of the Holy See,” to the prolonged standing ovation at the end, there was a sense of genuine awe and welcome, more than simple applause, although the address was interrupted by applause more than 35 times. Pope Francis strained to communicate, speaking slowly in English he had struggled to improve, using more gestures and expression as the speech progressed. It was also impressive how people in the chamber struggled to hear his message despite the pronounced accent and quiet delivery of Pope Francis.
Some themes drew applause across the crowded chamber. However, the guests in the gallery were more supportive of the full range of the pope’s message, applauding and standing consistently. On the floor, the responses were more selective. The pope’s affirmation of America, his embrace of Lincoln and King, his condemnation of extremism and violence drew universal approval. Democrats clapped earlier, longer and more often for his words about welcoming immigrants, protecting the environment, caring for the poor and pursuing dialogue over conflict in foreign affairs. Republicans led the applause on the defense of human life, family and religious liberty.
Sometimes members didn’t know what to do, especially when the pope’s call “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” was immediately followed by “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner had apparently agreed on a common approach. I cannot recall a single instance when one registered approval and the other withheld it. In fairness, there was no sign of the raucous partisan cheerleading which has turned the State of the Union address into a political rally. This was one of those days everyone in the Chamber would remember for the rest of their lives.
Pope Francis summarized his powerful and moving address by returning to the four very different American leaders that were at the center of his message:
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.
After his address to Congress, Francis was brought to the West Front of the Capitol, greeted people and asked for their prayers. John Boehner wept after finally bringing a pope to Congress after trying for more than two decades. We did not know that he would announce his resignation as Speaker the next morning .
Then Pope Francis went from speaking to the most powerful people in Washington to be with some of the least powerful, homeless men and women, poor kids and immigrant families. The history and strain of being the first pope to address Congress was replaced with smiles, hugs and mutual words of support and prayer. Catholic Charities offered the pope a chance to move beyond the monuments and shrines of the Capitol to greet, encourage and show his love for the people he had in his heart and mind as he spoke to Congress. In that street among the forgotten people of Washington, Francis was at home in the United States.