WASHINGTON – Pope Francis stridently called on Congress to help the downtrodden, pressing members to work to combat climate change, open their hearts to Syrians fleeing crisis, and fight for those caught in a cycle of poverty.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” he said. “The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another.”
This is the first time a pope has ever addressed the United States Congress.
Minnesota members each got to bring one guest to the chamber. Dozens of other Minnesotans were invited to stand outside on the National Mall to watch the speech on Jumbotrons. Tens of thousands of people have descended to get a glimpse of the leader, arriving pre-dawn to get through heavy security.
“When we heard the pope was coming, we decided to come,” said Marie Kigin, of St. Cloud, who brought her daughter Sara to the Mall at 4 a.m. Thursday to watch the speech. Sara has Down syndrome and leukemia. “We are celebrating Sara’s life. The power of faith kept us going and, I believe, kept her alive.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar was selected to be a pope escort into the chamber.
As the pope delivered his remarks in clear, yet slow and heavily accented English, members were rapt. Silence was punctured on occasion by applause and standing ovations from some members as he delivered remarks on immigration, poverty and economic inequality.
On the envrionment, Francis urged Congress to play a role in combatting climate change.
“I call for courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he said. “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.”
Francis also strongly urged Congress to abolish the death penalty and support policy that levels widening wage and class gaps in the United States. He harkened back to the United States’ history as a country, citing the Declaration of Independence, saying that because America is the “land of dreams,” Congress should fight for everyone to be able to fulfill their dream.
“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said. “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts. ... It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.”
In the chamber, Democrats broke into applause and quick standing ovations at calls for economic redistribution, the abolition of the death penalty and the acceptance of all kinds of “families.” When Francis quoted the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” some members spontaneously yelled, “yes!” and started clapping.
In a statement, Klobuchar said she appreciated the pope’s request that members put aside differences.
“His humble dedication to serving those in need is a source of continual inspiration,” she said.
Francis also touched on abortion — a hot topic on Capitol Hill right now as members wrangle to find accord on a federal spending bill that includes funding for Planned Parenthood.
“The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Francis said.
Outside the Capitol, the Pope’s appearance Thursday energized a crowd of 50,000 on the West Lawn.
The mass of people, including the Kigins, had been waiting more than four hours and watched the sun rise. But upon seeing images of the Pope on the giant video screens, they rallied.
‘This is unbelievable,’ Marie Kigin said looking out over the crowd.
When the Pope finished speaking to the politicians, the chant from the public began.
“Papa. Papa,” they roared, invoking the Italian word for “father.”
The pope’s themes of family and inclusion played well with Tim Waldholm and Annie Walczynski of Duluth. The couple got a spot on the West Lawn in a raffle run by Rep. Rick Nolan’s office.
“You can watch on TV,” Waldholm said. “But being in be crowd, you feel the energy.”
Seeing the Pope and visiting Washington “was on both of our bucket lists,” he said.
When Francis appeared on the speaker’s balcony overlooking the throng after speaking to Congress, the ovation reached a noisy pitch only to settle down as the pope offered a blessing in Spanish that was translated into English for the faithful.
Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen said he thought the speech transcended politics.
“It was very heartfelt; it was introspective and certainly full of compassion,” Paulsen said.
Paulsen said the pontiff’s calls for income equality and redistribution dovetails with his work on tax policy and tax reform. He said 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.