Pope Talks Death Penalty, Immigration, Climate in Historic Address

In a historic speech to a joint meeting of Congress Thursday, Pope Francis urged lawmakers — and the United States as a whole — not to be afraid of immigrants but to welcome them as fellow human beings, as he became the first pontiff in history to address the legislators. His wide-ranging remarks also touched on the issues of climate change, family and the death penalty.

Referencing the migration crisis in Europe as well as the United States' own struggle with immigration from Latin America, Francis summoned lawmakers "to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."

"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 as we can to their situation," Francis urged.

The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina himself, Francis noted that the United States was founded by immigrants, that many lawmakers are descended from foreigners, and that this generation must not "turn their back on our neighbors."

"Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated," he implored. "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."

Entering a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, and lawmakers of both parties, Francis united the often-warring factions before he opened his mouth as the crowd stood to deliver a standing ovation. The sergeant at arms intoned, "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See," and Francis made his way up the center aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as lawmakers applauded enthusiastically, some inclining their heads in bows.

The Argentine pope spoke from the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches. Behind him sat Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics.

"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,'" the pope said in his opening remarks.

The pope warned lawmakers that the fight against religious extremism must not trample on freedoms, saying, "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 referenced the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr "to fulfill his 'dream' of full civil and political rights for African Americans."

"That dream continues to inspire us all," Francis said. "I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of 'dreams.'"

Pope Francis also called for the global abolition of the death penalty.

"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,” he said.

Francis also touched on family, saying, "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family." 

On climate change, he said, "I am convinced that we can make a difference. I am sure."

Some members of the chamber stood up to applaud, though not all. Francis added that “now is the time for courageous actions and strategies."

The pope demanded an end to the arms trade, delivering a tough message to a country that is the world's largest exporter of weapons.

He asked why weapons are being sold to people who intend only to inflict suffering on innocents. He said: "Sadly, the answer as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood."

Several presidential canidates reacted to the speech on Twitter. 

"The pope is right in saying all of us must address the grotesque income and wealth inequality we are seeing throughout the world," Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wrote. 

"Grateful for the inspiring words of @pontifex," GOP's Jeb Bush said in a post. "People of good will must work together to advance the common good."

Gary Garofalo, 75, a lawyer, in Washington D.C., said he had expected a little more from the pope about income inequality and preserving the environment.

“But he got there,” Garofalo said.

“I’m not sure how much it will resonate with the politicians,” he said. “I think they’re stuck in their own divisiveness. They have a long way to go to bring some consensus to what they do.”

He disagreed with criticism that the pope’s positions are too political. The pope is both a religious leader and a head of state, he said.

“It may be a religious country but he’s the head of a country. And I think he’s entitled to say to what he says. I hope he’s listened to.”

After his speech to Congress, the pope briefly addressed the thousands on the Capitol's West Lawn from the Speaker's balcony.

"I’m so grateful for your presence here," he said in Spanish. "The most important ones here are children."

He asked people to pray for him and to those who don't believe or cannont pray, he said, "I ask you please to send good wishes my way."

He concluded in English, "Thank you very much and God bless America."

Lawmakers of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations have thrilled to the pope's arrival, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them and hear him out Thursday morning. Tens of thousands of spectators will be watching from the West Lawn of the Capitol and many more on TV from around the world as the pope addresses a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, diplomats, lawmakers and their guests.

Security was tight outside the building with streets around the Capitol blocked off and a heavy police presence that rivaled an Inauguration or State of the Union address by the U.S. president. The scene on the West Lawn of the Capitol was festive but orderly, as thousands awaited the pope's appearance on the House Speaker's Balcony after his speech to Congress.

Libby Miller of Frederick, Maryland, said her friends all told her she was crazy for schlepping to Capitol Hill with her 4-year-old son, Camden, and 2-year-old daughter, Avery. Miller, armed with toys, snacks and a sippy cup, found a spot on the Capitol lawn and said she wanted her kids to be there for an important moment in history. They won't understand it now, she said, but "they'll get it eventually."

Ron Sanchez, 48, a former journalist, now musician and filmmaker who lives in D.C. said he'd like to hear the pope address climate change in his speech.

"We’re just ravishing the Earth and not respecting all the other species," said Sanchez, who was standing on the West Lawn. "Just be more responsible human beings."

He hoped Francis' message "doesn't wear off in just a week."

Sybil Barkett of Miami, who was waiting at Dupont Circle to watch the pope's speech on a jumbotron said she wanted the pontiff "to be honest about what's going on in the world which he always is." "I hope he doesn't hesitate to speak his mind," she added. 

Boehner, a Republican and a former altar boy who invited the pope to speak after trying unsuccessfully to lure the two previous pontiffs to the Capitol, has dismissed concerns that the politically engaged Francis will stir the controversies of the day.

"The pope transcends all of this," Boehner said. "He appeals to our better angels and brings us back to our daily obligations. The best thing we can all do is listen, open our hearts to his message and reflect on his example."

The Senate's Republican leader welcomed the pope Thursday morning with an up-to-the-minute video that included images from Wednesday's parade. 

"Americans have watched the pope reach new and different audiences, both from within his flock and far beyond it," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

For Congress, the pope was arriving at a moment of particular turmoil: A partial government shutdown looms next week unless lawmakers can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group's practices providing fetal tissue for research. Boehner himself is facing a brewing revolt from tea party members who've threatened to force a floor vote on whether he can keep his job.

Francis was certain to steer clear of such controversies, though the church's opposition to abortion could bolster Republicans in their efforts against Planned Parenthood. For members of Congress, his visit may prove little more than a brief respite from their partisan warfare, offering moments of unusual solemnity, uplift and pomp, but without fundamentally shifting the intractable gears of the U.S. political system.

Indeed there's little sign on Capitol Hill of significant action on the social justice issues dear to Francis' heart. But on Wednesday the pope said simply that in addressing Congress "I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles."

Francis enjoys approval ratings the envy of any U.S. politician as he's remade the image of the Catholic Church toward openness and compassion, yet without changing fundamental church doctrine. Addressing a chamber full of elected officials Thursday, he may be the most adept politician in the room.

After speaking in the House chamber Francis was to stop by the Capitol's Statuary Hall and its statue of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century missionary whom Francis elevated to sainthood Wednesday in the first canonization on U.S. soil.

Later, he planned to stop at St. Patrick's Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.

For Francis, it's been a whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on his three-city U.S. tour.

On Wednesday he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House, paraded around the Ellipse and spoke to U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Francis emphasized one of the defining messages of his papacy, to focus less on defending church teaching and more on compassion. The pope told the American church leaders that "harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor," and he encouraged them to speak with anyone.

In his first comments in the U.S. on the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002, the pope praised the bishops for a "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" and for acting "without fear of self-criticism."

An organization for abuse victims quickly disagreed.

"Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now," said Barbara Dorris, president of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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