Francis urges US to embrace ‘the stranger in our midst’ at Congress
Pope Francis issued a ringing call to action on behalf of immigrants, urging politicians at the US Congress to embrace “the stranger in our midst” as he became the first pontiff in history to address a joint meeting of the legislators.
Referencing the migration crisis in Europe as well as the US’s own struggle with immigration from Latin America, Francis summoned politicians “to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal”.
“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 as we can to their situation,” Francis urged.
He was welcomed enthusiastically to a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials and politicians of both parties, uniting the bickering factions before he even opened his mouth as all stood to cheer his arrival.
The sergeant at arms intoned “Mr Speaker, the pope of the Holy See”, and Francis made his way up the centre aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as politicians applauded, some lowering their heads in bows.
After the speech, he appeared on a Capitol balcony and briefly addressed a cheering crowd of thousands below on the lawn and the Mall beyond.
“Buenos dias,” he called out, and the crowd thundered its response. “God bless America!” he concluded, just as he had in the House chamber.
Yesterday’s speech was the latest highlight for the pope’s whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on a three-city US tour.
On Wednesday, he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House, where he and US president Barack Obama embraced each other’s warnings on climate change, paraded through Washington streets in the popemobile, addressed US bishops, noting the clergy sex abuse scandal, and celebrated a Mass of Canonisation for Junipero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded major California missions.
Last night, he moved on to New York and will travel later to Philadelphia.
Introducing himself at the Capitol as “a son of this great continent”, the Argentine pope, reading his remarks slowly in English, spoke from the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches.
Behind him sat vice president Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics.
Outside, tens of thousands watched on giant screens and many more were watching on TV around the world.
Politicians of all backgrounds and religious affiliations welcomed the pope, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them to listen to the pope.
Yet Francis spoke to a Congress that has deadlocked on immigration legislation, at a time when there are more than 11m people in the US illegally, and where some politicians have balked at Obama administration plans to accept more of the Middle Eastern and African refugees flooding into Europe.
Indeed, Francis arrived at a moment of particular turmoil for Congress, with a partial government shutdown looming next week unless politicians can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group’s practices providing foetal tissue for research.
Boehner himself, who invited Francis to speak, is facing a brewing revolt from Tea Party members who have threatened to force a floor vote on whether the Speaker can keep his job.
Francis steered clear of such controversies, alluding only in passing to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion when he noted, to applause, “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”.
He advocated abolition of the death penalty, something that enjoys support from a number of politicians of both parties at the federal level, and spoke out against fundamentalism of all kinds, while urging care in combating it.
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, recalled that America itself was founded by immigrants, that many politicians are descended from foreigners, and that new generations must not “turn their back on our neighbours”.
Given an ovation when he spoke of the Golden Rule, he said: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.”
Ahead of Francis’s remarks, politicians of both parties had busily sought political advantage from his stances, with Democrats in particular delighting in his support for action to combat global warming.
One House Republican backbencher announced plans to boycott the speech over Francis’s activist position on climate change.
Francis reiterated that stance, urging action to address “the environmental deterioration caused by human activity”.
“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,” he said.
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