WASHINGTON – Pope Francis challenged a divided U.S. Congress to do more to welcome immigrants and conquer poverty through a fairer distribution of wealth in a passionate, historic address that confronted America’s thorniest political problems.
The leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the first pope to address Congress, saved his strongest language for the plight of immigrants and refugees, calling on lawmakers to reject “a mindset of hostility” and resist the temptation to look away. In the Americas, he said, thousands travel north to seek a better life.
“Is this not what we want for our own children?” Francis asked. “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.”
With his messages on poverty, migrants and the environment, the pontiff took aim at positions held by Republicans, who have opposed President Barack Obama’s proposals to increase the minimum wage, revamp the immigration system and curb carbon emissions. At the same time, he faulted the support among many Democrats for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
The Latin American pope spoke Thursday in a House chamber packed with lawmakers and their guests, Vice President Joe Biden, Cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices. Entering to a standing ovation, Francis walked slowly down the center aisle, pausing to shake hands with Secretary of State John Kerry before stepping up to the podium. Thousands of people who had arrived before dawn gathered outside the Capitol to watch on large television screens.
Francis called for a fair distribution of wealth for “the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work.” Francis also described business as “a fruitful source of prosperity” especially if it saw job creation as “an essential part of its service to the common good.”
He skipped one portion of his prepared text, released on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, that said, “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, told reporters that Francis skipped the remark by mistake. “It was a small oversight,” Lombardi said, adding that the line should be considered as having been said by the pope.
He urged the “right use of natural resources” to protect the environment against climate change caused by human activity. Despite opposition particularly from Republican critics to his encyclical on the climate, Francis insisted: “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.”
The pope cautioned in his remarks against falling back on strict ideology, addressing a chamber riven by sharp disagreements between the two parties.
“There is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil,” he said. People must “confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”
After his address, the pope was accompanied by congressional leaders to the Capitol Speaker’s Balcony, where he was met by thunderous applause from thousands of people on the lawn below.
Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Francis asked God to bless the children and requested those in the audience to pray for him. “And if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way,” he said.
Francis gave his speech as part of a six-day tour through the U.S. that included a White House meeting Wednesday with Obama. After experiencing the grandeur of the House chamber, the pope headed off in his small Fiat 500L to meet about 200 homeless people at the charity center of St. Patrick’s in the City in downtown Washington.
“The Son of God knew what it was to be a homeless person, to start life without a roof over his head,” the pope told them. Francis added there was “no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
Later Thursday, he’s scheduled to depart for New York, where he will address the United Nations General Assembly, then travel to Philadelphia to attend the World Meeting of Families.
Francis’ speech gave Congress a brief respite from a battle between Republicans and Democrats over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s reproductive-health service, that threatens to shut down the government next week.
Still, members of both parties showed their views with their applause -—with Democrats responding most strongly to the pontiff’s comments on immigration and Republicans cheering the most when he spoke of the “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
This conviction, he said, led him to call for “the global abolition of the death penalty” and he offered his support for U.S. bishops campaigning on the issue. And amid disputes between the U.S. church and the administration on family issues, including same-sex marriage, Francis said, “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
The pope reminded Americans that, like Francis himself, “many of you are also descended from immigrants.” Building a nation means “rejecting a mindset of hostility” toward “the stranger in our midst,” as the world faces a refugee crisis not seen since World War II, he said.
Immigration has emerged as a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential race, with Republican candidate Donald Trump saying he would deport about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
In his remarks on immigration, the pontiff touched on a topic that ignites strong — and often contradictory — attitudes among Americans, a new Bloomberg Poll has found. While more than 4 in 10 Americans are open to the idea of building a wall along the 5,000-mile border with Canada, 8 in 10 believe the country has thrived because of the newcomers it has attracted. The survey of 1,001 Americans, taken the weekend before the pope’s arrival, also showed that 70 percent back Francis’ call for nations to be more welcoming of immigrants.
The pope called himself “a son of this great continent” while paying tribute to “the land of the free and the home of the brave” and honoring the memory of four Americans. President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated 150 years ago, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic relief worker Dorothy Day and the monk Thomas Merton “shaped fundamental values which endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” Francis said.
Speaking opposite a marble relief portrait of Moses, one of 23 in the House chamber depicting historical figures tied to principles of American law, Francis compared the lawmakers’ work to the prophet: “you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Addressing a country with a leading role in the world arms trade, Francis called for a stop to it. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “Sadly, the answer as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
The pope concluded with a tribute to “the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people.” He added: “It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”