In his historic address to Congress Thursday, Pope Francis told the members to “work together for the common good.” He reminded Congress their responsibility is to defend and preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens, calling that the chief aim of all politics. “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” the Pontiff said. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
Francis spoke about the polarization that has gripped Washington for the last several years and he extolled Congress to end the gridlock. He urged them to break out of its cycle of polarization and paralysis to finally use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution. “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.” Essentially, the Pope was telling Congress to stop fighting and get to work.
The Pontiff also addressed extremism, both religious and ideological extremism. “All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today,” Francis said. “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism,” he declared, adding that “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.”
The Pope was interrupted by applause, often bi-partisan applause, during his address. By far, the largest applause came when the Pope, in his role as pastor, said “Let us remember the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” He suggested we treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves,” he said.
Francis brought a message of healing and reconciliation. But he also issued a challenge. He beseeched a nation that generates a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to not let money drive its decisions at the expense of humanity. “Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good.
There was speculation that the Pope would talk about immigration, and he did, beginning with the illegal immigration of Europeans and their mistreatment of the indigenous people. “In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom,” he said. “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
The Pontiff reminded members of Congress that most of them were once foreigners. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. He also addressed the current refugee crisis. “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions.”
The Pope said that we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view refugees as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. He extolled Congress to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.
Many observers noted the Congress, which is generally a very divisive place, seemed to be more congenial during the Pope’s address. Whether that will last is not known. Sadly, within hours, the Senate was back to business, conducting another stalemate vote as Republicans failed to break a Democratic filibuster of a measure to cut off federal money from Planned Parenthood. However, a field of wheat begins with a tiny seed. Pope Francis was sowing seeds in Washington today.