WASHINGTON – In a historic address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis on Thursday praised America as “the land of the free and home of the brave,” while urging its lawmakers to remember the poor, reject war and rectify social injustices.
The soft-spoken Argentinian-born pope spoke for about 50 minutes to a deeply divided Congress, bowing humbly from the dais to a sustained standing ovation before he began.
“I am most grateful for your invitation to address this joint session of Congress in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Francis said to an enthusiastic U.S. House chamber filled with lawmakers and their guests, including some Catholic clergy from New Mexico.
While the tone of Francis’ speech was conciliatory and gentle, he did not shy away from divisive political issues.
The pope gave congressional Democrats reason to cheer when he denounced the death penalty and urged action to save the planet from climate change.
Later, Republicans roared with applause when Francis spoke to the sanctity of human life and the importance of the traditional family. And members from both sides of the political aisle jumped to their feet when the pope mentioned slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and the hope he gave Americans of all colors, creeds and religions.
“That dream continues to inspire us all,” Francis said. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams.”
Deacon Robert Vigil of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said the pope’s speech inspired him – and he hoped Congress was similarly moved.
“He’s a man of the people and a voice of the poor,” Vigil said. “I hope our Congress listened and remembers that they work for the people.”
Francis spoke of the perpetually thorny subject of immigration and used the current example of the migrant crisis in Europe – the worst such problem since World War II, he said – to touch on a bedrock biblical teaching.
“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” he said. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.
“Let us remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Francis then segued into the controversial subject of abortion, not mentioning the procedure by name but alluding to it, nonetheless.
“The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” he said.
The pope said he was troubled by violence and unrest across the world but warned that more violence is not the solution.
“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. “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.”
Francis also explained why he rejects violence as a form of criminal justice. More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, but the practice persists in the U.S. He noted that American bishops recently renewed their call to ban the death penalty here.
“Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” he said.
Francis has opposed gay marriage, now legal in all 50 states after a landmark Supreme Court ruling this summer. He reiterated his support for traditional family Thursday.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Francis did not mention any American military policies specifically but told Congress that war is not a suitable answer to political problems. He also called out those who would arm violent actors for profit.
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “Sadly, 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 and to stop the arms trade.”
Regarding climate change, Francis said: “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said he appreciated the pope’s presence in the nation’s Capitol at a time when many Americans are drifting away from religion. He called Francis a “visual symbol” for a world in need of spirituality and said he appreciated the pope’s thoughtful and diverse views on issues of the day.
“I don’t mind that he brings some different things into it – even when we reach different conclusions,” Pearce said. “There were things in there that both sides could feel good about.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., called the pope’s speech to Congress and trip to the United States – his first – “a very special moment for New Mexicans and the rest of the country.”
“Pope Francis has inspired a new generation of people, no matter where they come from, to be instruments of peace and compassion,” Heinrich said. “The pope’s emphasis on the importance of family and his message of helping our neighbors and the poor is one that resonates across New Mexico. We should all heed his call to relieve suffering, address inequalities, and show mercy to the most vulnerable in our communities.”