Pope Francis has urged the United States not to turn its back on undocumented immigrants, to reject the victimization of religious and ethnic minorities, to overcome income inequality and to save the planet from climate change, citing Scripture and the nation’s founding ideals in a historic address to Congress Thursday.
Francis, who will later swap the corridors of power for a humble lunch with homeless people, also asked lawmakers to wage a constant battle against poverty and to ensure the wealth of the world is equitably shared and used to create jobs.
Francis, who is on a six-day U.S. visit and is the first-ever pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, was watched not only by a packed chamber of lawmakers but also thousands of people who gathered outside the Capitol to follow the speech on big screens erected on the National Mall.
The Pope, who was greeted by cheers as he stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives, did not scold lawmakers, as his tough words on political topics at the White House Wednesday suggested he might. Instead, speaking in English rather than his native Spanish, he delivered a speech that evoked a sermon or even a pep talk.
Using the podium of the House as a pulpit, he repeatedly couched the most politically divisive issues in U.S. public life in the context of the lessons of the Bible and the example of American heroes, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, to encourage his audience to live up to the country’s highest ideals.
Citing his own national heritage as an immigrant and his Argentine roots, Francis reminded his audience that undocumented migrants were human beings. At times this summer, the millions of people living in the shadows in the United States have been singled out in the heat of the presidential campaign.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said, as Vice President Joe Biden and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, both Catholics, watched him deliver a speech punctuated by several standing ovations and repeated applause.
“I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants,” Francis told the audience of lawmakers, top military brass, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members on the floor of the House.
Francis, who was greeted on the streets of Washington Wednesday by tens of thousands of exuberant admirers, made a clear connection between undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the human exodus of Syrians and others into Europe from wars raging in the Middle East.
He also praised efforts in recent months to “help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” a passage that President Barack Obama’s supporters may take as approval of his controversial policies towards Cuba and Iran.
Amid criticism that he is overly critical of global capitalism and dismisses its place in lifting millions of people out of poverty, Francis acknowledged that “business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
But he cautioned that wealth should be shared and geared to “the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
The Pope also counseled members of the unpopular and divided Congress of the need to move forward together in a generous spirit of fraternity.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” he said.
Francis, who will take part Sunday in a World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on the last stop of his trip to the United States, also made an oblique reference Thursday to the increasing prevalence of same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court endorsed nationwide earlier this year.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” Francis said. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
The Pope drew cheers, especially from the Republican side of the House, when he spoke of the need to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” in a reference to abortion.
But he earned only a smattering of applause when he said that reverence for life also means opposition to the death penalty.
After his lunch with the homeless at a Catholic charity in Washington, Francis will head to New York where he will ride his popemobile through Manhattan and lead evening prayers at St Patrick’s Cathedral.