Pope Francis met with the House and Senate on Thursday on Capitol Hill

By Char Adams and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated September 24, 2015 11:00 AM
Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

Calling himself “a son of this great continent,” Pope Francis spoke of religious freedom, the refugee crisis and poverty as he addressed a joint Congress on Capitol Hill at a podium never-before made available to a pontiff.

Massive crowds surrounded the Capitol’s West grounds on Thursday, ready as Francis rode up to the event in a compact Fiat. The National Mall saw crowds akin to a presidential inauguration.

But even with thousands roaring outside and hundreds in front of him, the 78-year-old held to his gentle demeanor.

Coming to the Capitol with messages uncomfortable to both sides of the political aisle – on immigration (which drew applause from Democrats and fewer Republicans), abortion, the death penalty, poverty and the sale of weapons to other nations – Francis opened his speech by telling the members of the House and Senate that their work reminds him of Moses.

“You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God in every human face,” the Spanish-born pontiff said in careful and halting English.

He read from a printed, paper text rather than a teleprompter. He spoke while standing on a small box placed on the massive dais for him, earning his first standing ovation when he invoked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ ” The Pontiff received a second standing ovation – from both sides of the aisle – when he told Congress “most of us were once foreigners.”

In his hushed, gentle voice, Francis also hit on the issue of poverty plaguing millions in the nation and worldwide as he addressed the Congress.

“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said after commending the progress that has been made in regard to poverty over the years.

“They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (who grew teary-eyed during the Pope’s address, both devout Catholics but from opposing political parties, sat behind Francis as he spoke.

His statements on poverty echoed that in his speech at the White House just one day earlier, much like the 78-year-old’s remarks about religious freedom.

“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and religion,” Francis said.

“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.”

Freedom and justice were recurring themes in the Pope’s address, especially as he touched on the Syrian refugee crisis, urging the officials to have compassion.

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” he began. “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves.”

“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.”

He also addressed America’s hot-button issues of abortion (“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”), the death penalty (“every life is sacred”), income inequality (political leaders “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance … The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly”), and immigration.

Lawmakers were admonished by their leaders in advance not to stand and applaud every pronouncement they agree with, which, at the State of the Union address, typically results in a time-consuming, partisan spectacle.

Also unlike that annual visit by the president, Thursday’s papal visit saw no glad-handing of the Pope as he made his way down the center aisle to the dais. Members had been warned that protocol – and the need to keep Francis on schedule – dictates that they not hold him up with handshakes and hellos.

At least one congressman, Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona, was boycotting the speech, citing Francis’s call for action on climate change.

Telling lawmakers definitively that “environmental deterioration is caused by human activity,” Francis urged them: “I am convinced that we can make a difference … Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”

After addressing lawmakers, Francis took to the balcony to address the thousands gathered on the Capitol’s West grounds.

He prayed in Spanish, focusing on the children – “the most important ones here” – before asking onlookers to pray for him or send “good wishes” his way.

He waved to the crowd and smiled then as he headed a few blocks away to St. Patrick’s Church and lunch with the homeless.