WASHINGTON – Minnesotans who crammed into and outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday said Pope Francis’ historic message to Congress urging political civility and aid to the world’s downtrodden was encouraging in times of domestic and international turmoil.
On the west lawn of the Capitol, tens of thousands of people gathered in the predawn darkness hoping to glimpse the pontiff and watch the speech on Jumbotron screens.
Among them were Marie and Sara Kigin of St. Cloud.
“When we heard the pope was coming, we decided to come,” said Marie Kigin. Sara, her daughter, has Down syndrome and is battling leukemia. “We are celebrating Sara’s life. The power of faith kept us going and, I believe, kept her alive.”
The Kigins booked flights to D.C. before even securing tickets from Republican Rep. Tom Emmer’s office to watch the speech on the west lawn. Operating on just a couple of hours of sleep, the two were energized by giant images of the pope on the big screens. They listened carefully and exploded in applause when Francis spoke about dignity, caring for the poor and protecting the Earth.
“This is unbelievable,” Marie Kigin said, looking out over the crowd.
Despite the pope’s pleas to Congress to work on the world’s refugee crises, climate change, immigration reform and income redistribution, Minnesota’s Republicans say the speech — the first time a pope has addressed a U.S. Congress — transcended politics. Members listening to the quiet and heavily accented speech delivered in English by Francis compared the atmosphere in the chamber to being at church.
“It was very heartfelt, it was introspective and certainly full of compassion, I’ll say that,” said GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen.
Paulsen noted the pope’s calls to address climate change were welcome, as long as there is balance. “The key there is to protect it in a very responsible way that doesn’t hurt the economy or cost jobs,” he said.
Emmer, a Catholic who represents the state’s most conservative district, gushed about Francis. At one point during the address, when the pope was citing the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” Emmer was nodding vigorously in the audience.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put him in a political category, being liberal or conservative. This is a great message. America has a great history. America needs to lead. And you know what? The way you do that is to figure out how to have these difficult discussions,” Emmer said. “He was able to talk to everybody in that chamber at a level that really didn’t get into an ‘us and them.’ It was all about ‘we.’ ”
Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, called the speech “awesome.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t pull any punches, you know? I thought he might roll it back a bit, you know, be a little more diplomatic in a bad way,” Ellison said. “He just laid out what he believed, and he still delivered it in a gentle or, you may even say, loving way. There was no venom in his tone.”
When the pope finished speaking to the politicians, the public chanted “Papa, Papa.”
When he appeared on the House speaker’s balcony overlooking the throng, the ovation reached a noisy pitch, settling down as the pope offered a blessing in Spanish that was translated into English.
Copeland meets the pope
Mary Jo Copeland, founder of Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis, probably got the best view of Francis on Thursday — she had a private audience with him at the Vatican Embassy. She called the meeting “warm and wonderful.”
“You can’t even explain the feeling,” said Copeland, whose organization has helped the poor for several decades. “I hugged the pope twice. I told him to come to Minneapolis next time. … I asked him to pray for me. I asked him to pray for the work. It was just a wonderful thing.”
When legislators were asked whether the pope’s message of comity will influence how Congress — currently mired in a massive fight on how to fund the federal government — does its job, they were sanguine.
“I don’t know if it is necessarily going to be obvious right away, but you just never know what turns a vote for someone or a compromise or makes people think, ‘You know, I think I can agree to do this,’ ” said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who helped escort the pope into the gallery.
Sen. Al Franken was more blunt: “I don’t know,” he said, breaking into his well-known belly laugh. “I hope so. But I don’t know.”