Pope Francis spoke to Washington’s political power and comforted its powerless on his final day in the nation’s capital, delivering the same message at two stops: those with the most must do more to help those who have the least.
The populist pope straddled this city’s political and economic divide Thursday, making history in the process as the first Vatican leader to address a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and Senate before meeting nearby with some of the city’s homeless.
At the core of his message was a challenge to divided American politics and a disquieted world to embark on a renewed “spirit of cooperation” to grapple with difficult challenges from immigration to climate change to poverty.
“All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person,” the 78-year-old Argentine-born pontiff told a House chamber packed with lawmakers, luminaries, and congressional constituents.
He lauded private enterprise for creating wealth, but stressed that politics must play a role as the voice of the people to ensure common good.
“If politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” he said.
“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”
It’s a theme he repeated at a Catholic Charities facility a little more than a mile away, where he huddled with residents from various homeless shelters.
“I want to be clear. We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Francis said during a speech at nearby St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.”
In his congressional speech, Francis spoke passionately about immigration, an issue that lawmakers and the White House have struggled to resolve for years. He reminded his audience that the United States began as a country of immigrants and implored them to follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since World War II,” he said.
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? 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.”
The message resonated with Lorena Soto, an 88-year-old San Diego resident who teared up when Francis appeared from a balcony to greet thousands of people gathered outside the Capitol.
“The pope is so humble, and seeing him standing there in front of the government of our country, which needs such help, delivering that beautiful message was very special,” said Soto. “Especially the part about welcoming immigrants, people in Congress need to hear that.”
Francis’ immigration plea appeared well-received by some lawmakers, though few committed to turn the pope’s words into immediate legislative action.
We are looking for a solution ... Hopefully there will be a political will to do that. The pope’s comments are always helpful and additive.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Francis stressed that the Golden Rule also should also apply to abortion and death sentencing, saying it “also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
He revisited climate change, telling lawmakers that, “we need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
He also spoke about the family in remarks that appeared aimed at same-sex marriage.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before from within and without,” he said. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Congressional Democrats and Republicans simultaneously view the pontiff as politically one of their own and the voice of the opposition – depending on the issue.
Democrats cheered loudly when the pontiff spoke of economic disparities. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the son of immigrants from Cuba, was one of the first lawmakers to stand and applaud when the pontiff said “... most of us were once foreigners.”
Political differences aside, most lawmakers and the thousands of people who gathered outside the Capitol building were enthusiastic about seeing and hearing Francis.
Thursday’s address had the feel of a presidential inauguration and State of the Union speech rolled into one. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a devout Catholic who invited Francis to address Congress, was a picture of tears and smiles as he achieved his long-time goal of having a pope come to Capitol Hill.
“Your holiness, welcome, really glad that you’re here,” a moist-eyed Boehner said during a meeting in the speaker’s ceremonial room before his the pontiff’s speech.
Well, it only took me a few tries and 20 years or so. But finally ... the Pope will visit the United States Capitol.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio
Among his guests were the mother of Paula Nowakowski, his late chief of staff; Jerry Vanden Eyden, a childhood friend of Boehner’s dating back to his Catholic school days; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his wife, Callista. The former speaker converted to Catholicism in 2009.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who’s also Catholic, invited her husband, Paul Pelosi; her brother, former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III; and Matilda Cuomo, wife of the late former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Francis later appeared on a Capitol balcony to bless and greet thousands of invited guests. The mood outside was festive as people sang, clapped, and prayed the rosary. Yellow and white Vatican City flag and flags of Latin American countries dotted the crowd.
“I’m Catholic and I hold the pope in high esteem,” said JoAnne Jones, who flew in from St. Louis to see the pope from the Capitol’s West Front terrace. “He speaks to the common man.”
“Francis is the man,” said Matt Ruiz, an 18-year-old who came to Washington from Dallas with his Catholic youth group. “It’s weird that he’s so chill, I mean he’s the pope. But he seems like he wouldn’t judge you and knows everyone is human.”
Ana Ruis, 34, who came from nearby Alexandria, Va., said “I still think I’m dreaming, I can’t believe we are actually seeing Francisco in person.” She came to the Capitol with with her mother who is visiting from Cartagena, Colombia, and her two children, Anita, 5, and Francisco, 2.
“I wanted to come see this pope because he is so Christlike, because of his compassion for the poor and downtrodden,” said Charlie Burnett, 56, a Catholic schoolteacher who flew to Washington from Sparta, Wis., after getting a ticket from his senator.
“Today after his address he is going to eat with the homeless instead of rubbing elbows with the powerful, this is the reason why I wanted to come see him.”
“Everybody is so excited here because he strikes a cord with everyone,” added Gail Randon, 66, who came with her husband from Haymarket, Va., after scoring tickets through a lottery at their church. “He makes you feel that you could be a better person and make a change in the world.”
Maria Recio contributed