Embrace Immigrants, Pope Francis Urges Congress

September 24, 2015 Updated: September 24, 2015

WASHINGTON—Wading into bitter disputes, Pope Francis urged a divided Congress and America on Thursday to welcome immigrants, abolish the death penalty, share the nation’s immense wealth, and fight global warming. Lawmakers gave rousing ovations to the leader of the world’s Catholics despite obvious disagreements over some of his pleas.

After he addressed Congress, the first pontiff ever to do so, he underscored his message by traveling directly to a downtown Washington church where he mingled with needy and homeless people, blessed their noontime meal, and walked among them as they were eating.

Soon after, he was off to New York, second stop on his three-city first visit to the United States. He addresses the U.N. on Friday and winds up his visit this weekend in Philadelphia.

At the Capitol, the remarkable sight of the pope speaking in the House chamber seemed to delight lawmakers of all persuasions, though he offered an agenda more to Democrats’ liking. Besides his focus on climate change and immigration, he denounced arms sales and seemed to allude approvingly to the Iran nuclear deal and recent Obama administration actions to open relations with Cuba, done with his urging.

Republicans, too, heard something to like in his references to the sanctity of life and family relations, reminders that even the more open Catholic Church that Francis presides over still condemns abortion and gay marriage.

For all the spectacle, it seemed unlikely that the pope’s visit would break congressional inertia on the issues dear to him, with no action in sight from the GOP majority on global warming or immigration.

But Francis, in his historic speech, seemed determined to remind the United States of its foundations as a country made up of foreigners, addressing the chamber and the American people beyond in personal terms as a son of immigrants to “this great continent.”

“We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us,” he said. “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.”

Pope Francis is greeted by US Secretary of State John Kerry and other members of Congress as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is greeted by US Secretary of State John Kerry and other members of Congress as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 24, 2015, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

After the address, Francis appeared high on a Capitol balcony and briefly addressed a cheering crowd of thousands below on the lawn and the Mall beyond who had watched his speech on giant TV screens. “Buenos dias,” he called out in the language of his native Argentina and millions of U.S. immigrants, legal and not.

The crowd thundered its response.

Francis asked the crowd to pray for him, as he always does. But speaking in Spanish, he added a line to acknowledge that not everyone there was a believer. “If among you there are some who don’t believe or who cannot pray, I ask that you send good wishes my way,” he said, to tumultuous applause.

“God bless America!” he concluded, as he had in the House chamber.

After leaving the Capitol, the pope brought encouragement to a much smaller group—a gathering of homeless and needy people at St. Patrick’s Church and Catholic Charities in Washington. He decried a lack of housing for the poor and declared there is “no justification whatsoever” for homelessness.

New York was next in his jam-packed tour, which began last weekend in Cuba and included a White House ceremony and Washington parade in his “popemobile” on Wednesday. Late Thursday, he was to preside over a vespers service at the recently spruced-up St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

On Friday he will address the United Nations, where he is sure to make many of the same points emphasized in Washington—a need for openness to immigrants and for the world to share its riches with the needy.

At the Capitol in Washington, the packed House chamber included Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, and lawmakers of both parties, some of whom bowed their heads in deference as Francis walked down the center aisle to approach the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches.

“Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See,” bellowed the sergeant at arms.

Behind the pope sat Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics.

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress while Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) listen, at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress while Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listen, at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 24, 2015, in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In deliberate and accented English, Francis noted that many lawmakers were themselves descended from immigrants to the United States and that the country was founded by foreigners “who came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.”

“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” he said. “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”

His appeal comes amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II: Europe has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, and conflicts and poverty in Africa. In the United States, tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have surged across the border as violence has flared at home.

For now, Congress has deadlocked on immigration legislation, and the chances for progress have only grown more remote amid the hardline rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has painted Mexican immigrants as criminals and has said he would build a wall along the U.S. southern border and force Mexico to pay for it.

Francis has called for a more welcoming attitude toward migrants accross the board and has backed that up with a modest welcome of his own: The Vatican recently took in two refugee families to live in the tiny, walled city-state, which has committed to care for them while they await their asylum applications. Francis met with the first family to arrive, a Syrian family of four, en route to the airport for his current trip.

On another controversial subject, he advocated abolition of the death penalty in the United States, something that enjoys support from a number of lawmakers of both parties at the federal level. He spoke out against fundamentalism of all kinds, while urging care in combating it.

“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,” Francis said.

In calling for action on the climate and to combat poverty, Francis took care to insist he was not anti-business, as some conservatives have suggested. He quoted a Catholic teaching document that calls business “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”

At the Capitol, his mention of climate change drew standing cheers from Democrats while Republicans stood to applaud the reference to opposing abortion. Republicans in particular also loudly applauded as Francis asserted the importance of family life and bemoaned that “fundamental relationships are being called into question as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, recently legalized by the Supreme Court.

Francis also criticized the arms trade, which he said was fueled by the pursuit of “money that is drenched in blood.”

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