Pope Francis, making history’s first papal address to the U.S. Congress, on Thursday implored America’s leaders to accept those born in other countries as their own children, urging lawmakers to set aside political differences and embrace people who “travel north in search of a better life.”
The pope wrapped traditional Catholic teachings into a celebration of American icons including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., drawing lessons from their work to gently but firmly push Congress to move beyond the partisan paralysis that has blocked progress on immigration reform, climate change and other issues.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility,” the 78-year-old pontiff said in heavily accented English. “Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.”
President Obama watched the speech on television, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “Pope Francis made the appropriate observation for the United States to live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves,” Earnest said.
The Capitol Hill call to action kicked off a second full day of gleeful crowds and emotional visits to Catholic institutions. The faithful gathered at the Apostolic Nunciature, or Vatican embassy, to greet the pope when he emerged. More lined the streets as his motorcade traveled to the Capitol, where thousands waited on the Mall to watch his speech on giant screens.
After his address to Congress, the pope went directly from the grandeur of Capitol Hill to the spare St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in a neighborhood that has flipped over the past decade from marginalized to magnet. He prayed with people who variously wore suits and torn T-shirts, and he blessed the meals of more than 300 homeless people.
Upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the pope traveled by helicopter and motorcade to a very different St. Patrick’s, the soaring cathedral on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, for an evening service.
There, the pontiff began his homily by expressing “my sentiments of closeness” with Muslims after the tragic stampede that killed more than 700 pilgrims near Mecca on Thursday, the first day of Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest Muslim holidays. “I unite myself with all prayers to Almighty God, the merciful,” he said.
He spoke directly to nuns and women in the church, saying, “What would the church be without you?” He also referenced the clergy sex scandal for the second time on this visit, lamenting “the shame” caused by “brothers who harmed and scandalized the church in the most vulnerable of her members.”
The pontiff will carry his message to world leaders Friday when he speaks at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
In his speech to Congress, Francis crafted an address saturated in American references, with special praise for the nation’s role as “a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
He was pointed at times, urging the abolition of the death penalty and the end of arms trading, and warning of the dangers of religious extremism worldwide. And he was oblique at points, never directly mentioning abortion or the United States’ rapid embrace of same-sex marriage, saying only that the family is being threatened and that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
He saved his most specific prescription for combating climate change, a cause on which he said the United States has a special obligation to lead.
“I call 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,” the pope said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference — I’m sure. 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.”
The pope, who helped broker a diplomatic opening with Cuba, offered himself and his example as a pastoral link between opposing points of view. “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” he said. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”
Although members of Congress largely avoided the ostentatious displays of partisan cheering that have come to characterize the president’s annual State of the Union addresses, an ideological divide was apparent at times. In response to Francis’s passage about climate change, Democrats mostly stood and cheered, while some Republicans stayed seated and applauded mildly, if at all.
But the response to the pope’s passionate words about embracing immigrants seemed to strike a bipartisan chord. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a presidential candidate and son of Cuban immigrants, wiped away tears as the pope called himself “the son of immigrants.”
Pope Francis tempered his call for action with a statement of support for the role that business plays in society, calling it “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
“The creation and distribution of wealth,” he said, is a vital element in the fight against poverty and climate change.
Those looking for signs of this pope’s political direction could find evidence in the speech’s repeated references to a pantheon of liberal heroes, from Dorothy Day, who dedicated her life to a battle against poverty and war, to Thomas Merton, whose “Letters to a White Liberal,” written in 1963, urged Christians to follow their faith and join the fight for civil rights for black Americans.
The pope praised King for his focus on “liberty in plurality and non-exclusion,” Day for “social justice,” and Merton for “dialogue and openness to God.”
Francis implored Congress to “reject a mind-set of hostility” and embrace the immigrants who come “to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.”
The pope, noting that many in Congress are also children of people who made the risky journey to America, said the nation must follow the golden rule and “treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.”
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” he said, “but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
Francis’s emphasis on immigrants is a matter of self-interest for a U.S. church that is rapidly becoming majority Latino. Parishes across the white Northeast are shuttered while many in the West and South are bursting with Spanish-language Masses.
That focus also dovetails with the major theme of his American trip so far, a series of reminders that his papacy is very much about renewing the church’s focus on the poor and the powerless. The pope this year opened a 30-bedroom homeless shelter just steps from the Vatican. He had showers set up for homeless people in St. Peter’s Square, and he invited about 150 homeless people to a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel.
In New York, he will get a direct look at inner-city Catholic education when he visits a school in East Harlem and meets with immigrants and refugees. In Philadelphia, where he will end his U.S. visit, the pope will visit a prison to meet with inmates. In Washington, his visit at St. Patrick’s immediately — and pointedly — followed his hour in the majestic House chamber. The plain sanctuary of the 220-year-old downtown church was filled with people who need basic life services. But as Francis noted, “In prayer, there is no first or second class.”
“I need your prayers, your support,” the pontiff said, standing at a simple wooden podium before a reverentially silent flock. “Would you like to pray together?”
The hush broke like the uncorking of a bottle: “Yes!”
Americans are largely supportive of the pope’s engagement on economic, social and environmental issues. But American Catholics, who make up about one-fifth of the U.S. electorate, remain deeply divided over their church’s directives.
One Catholic congressman, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), skipped the pope’s appearance to protest Francis’s advocacy for strong action against global climate change and what Gosar sees as the pope’s failure to speak out “with moral authority against violent Islam.”
The many lawmakers who were inside the chamber on Thursday emerged with bipartisan agreement that the pope’s central message was simple: Just get along.
On the Capitol lawn, many of those who watched the pope’s congressional address on giant video screens came away convinced that Congress should — but probably won’t — take his message to heart.
“I was not expecting him to address the bipartisan divide,” said Emily Warn, 62, a writer from Seattle. “It’s as if he was trying to heal Congress.”
In a country where the old-line Catholic population is diminishing because many families are having fewer children — though a wave of Hispanic immigrants is partly making up for that decline in numbers — the pope spoke to young Catholics, especially those who are “disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
They will have children, he said, only if the nation provides them with a greater sense of “possibilities for the future.”
After the address, Francis walked through the Capitol’s second floor to Statuary Hall and paused at the statue of Junípero Serra, the California missionary whom he had canonized on Wednesday.
The pontiff then joined Vice President Biden, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other congressional leaders on the speaker’s balcony overlooking the West Front of the Capitol, greeting an enthusiastic crowd that numbered in the thousands. He said a few words of thanks in Spanish and then, to great cheers, switched to English: “Thank you very much, and God bless America!”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey, DeNeen L. Brown, Pamela Constable, Jessica Contrera, Ed O’Keefe, Michael E. Ruane and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.