Pope Francis to Congress: Follow Golden Rule
Washington — Pope Francis made history Thursday in the first papal address to Congress as he implored lawmakers to summon a spirit of cooperation to serve the common good in battling racial injustice, global poverty and extremism.
In a wide-ranging speech, the leader of the Catholic Church also called on representatives and senators to combat climate change and bridge their polarized ranks.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina urged his audience to respond in a “humane, just and fraternal” way to immigrants coming across the Southern border, as well as to refugees overseas searching for better opportunities.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons,” said Francis, who is the first pontiff to address Congress.
“We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: To discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ”
Francis, who spoke in English, called on legislators to move past their polarizing partisanship and confront “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil” and instead respond to one another with “hope and peace, peace and justice” as well as a spirit of cooperation.
“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” Francis said. “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
The parties’ differences were on display as Democrats jumped to their feet to applaud the pope’s call to welcome foreigners and abolish the death penalty. Republicans stood first to applaud Francis’ call to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
The Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the free market-oriented Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, witnessed the address from the House gallery and was struck by Francis’ repeated emphasis on dialogue.
“This is a very divided House and very divided Senate. This is a very united nation,” Sirico said. “And he constantly brings to bear these perspectives under the rubric of dialogue, having respect and really trying to come at it again.”
It’s unlikely that a papal visit will shake Americans from their “serious entrenchment” on cultural issues, but “it certainly can push things along,” he added.
The pope also encouraged Congress to battle global forms of slavery and pay attention to all forms of fundamentalism. He condemned weapons sales, calling the trade “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,” he said.
Francis recognized the renewed relations between the United States and Cuba — a deal he helped broker.
“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” Francis said.
Francis encouraged the Congress to fight poverty and its causes, noting that part of this effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.
Francis echoed themes of his recent pastoral letter on climate change, calling for a “courageous and responsible effort” to avert the “most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
“I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play,” he said.
Indirectly referring to gay marriage, Francis also expressed concern for the family, which is “threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said.
The pope left Washington late Thursday afternoon and arrived in New York City, where he was headed to a Thursday evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The pope is next scheduled to address the United Nations on Friday and travel to Philadelphia this weekend where he will hold a mass.
Pope called inspiring, engaging
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, was among an entourage of lawmakers that greeted and escorted Francis through the Capitol on Thursday morning.
“His vision for a world without poverty, war or environmental devastation is truly inspiring,” she said.
Catholic members of Michigan’s congressional delegation said the address was among the highlights of their years in Congress.
“The spirit of cooperation and love was his theme,” said Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, who is Catholic.
“He really got the crowd engaged right in the beginning, talking about the land of the free and home of the brave. I never saw so many people in the House; I’ve been to joint sessions before, but this was a crowded one, with lots of enthusiasm.”
Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn said she hopes Francis’ message will encourage Congress to behave more like a community working together for the common good.
“What he said today will be the bible by which I use as the navigator for my entire congressional career,” said Dingell, a Catholic in her first term.
“To stand up for what’s right, to have courage to speak the truth. That faith isn’t just acts of charity, and that you make a difference through activism, and having a strong commitment to all the people.”
Address a sign of acceptance
Dingell’s guest in the House gallery was Paul Long, president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference.
While anti-Catholicism still exists in America, the pope in Congress represents a sign of acceptance — not only of the church but of the pope’s valuing the voice of the United States in the world, Long said.
Francis framed his speech around four “great Americans” who served others — President Abraham Lincoln; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement; and the writer and monk Thomas Merton.
“They were very good examples of individuals in American history who sought prayed daily for peace, prayed for liberty, prayed for hope, and give us a good example of what all of us could be doing,” Long said.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, had a seat along the center aisle and said he saw Francis up close when he entered the House chamber, and later when he got into his black Fiat 500L.
“He said we have a responsibility and shouldn’t let things divide us. It was certainly well-received,” Upton said. “It doesn’t happen in a lot of people’s lifetimes to see a pope like this. And what a warm smile.”
After his speech, Francis appeared on the speaker’s balcony overlooking a crowd of 50,000 or so people who had tickets to view a telecast of the address on the West Lawn.
From Capitol Hill, he made his way downtown to Catholic Charities of Washington, where he met with the homeless, poor and mentally ill.
Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said it was intentional that the pope would go from hanging out with some of the world’s most influential power brokers to lunching with society’s most vulnerable.
“The pope has some important gospel truths to share with us and wants to show us that he lives them, and to invite us to join him in living those along with him,” Vigneron said in an interview this week.
Associated Press contributed.