WASHINGTON — In the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis called on Americans Thursday to embrace immigrants from Latin America and around the world.
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the second World War,” the pope said, including "thousands of persons (who) are led to travel north in search of a better life.
“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," Francis said in a 45-minute speech. "To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome."
Speaking slowly in English before a packed House chamber including the assembled members of Congress and hundreds of dignitaries and reporters, the Argentine pope said, "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us once were foreigners."
The pope's immigration plea comes in the middle of a fierce debate in American politics about illegal immigration, fueled in part by Donald Trump's strong campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump launched his campaign with a tirade against Mexico for sending "rapists" across the border and has promised that if elected he will build an impenetrable fence across the U.S./Mexican border.
Conservatives in Congress are looking for ways to use federal spending bills to blockPresident Obama's executive orders granting work permits and temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants.
A host of Republican presidential candidates attended the speech, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham and, in the visitors' gallery, Ben Carson and Chris Christie. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, was on the floor.
As he did Wednesday at his appearance with Obama, the pope called for action to combat climate change. Quoting from his encyclical in May on the environment, Francis told Congress, "I call for a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and to avert the most serious effects of 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."
Republicans have raised strong objections to Obama's plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, arguing that it will damage the economy without making any meaningful improvement in the environment.
As House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Vice President Biden, both Catholics, sat behind him, the pope provided some points that would satisfy conservatives. He said the Golden Rule "reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," then he pivoted immediately to a call for abolition of the death penalty, not a discourse on abortion.
He warned against the erosion of the family. "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without," Francis said. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life."
The pope did not make any specific appeal on the topic of marriage and cautioned against fundamentalism. "We must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. 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. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil or, if you will, the righteous and sinners."
After the speech, the pope made a brief stop in the halls of the Capitol to bless the 2-week-old daughter of one of Boehner's staff members.
He then stepped onto a balcony of the Capitol and gave a brief blessing to a huge crowd gathered on the lawn who had heard the speech via video. Speaking in Spanish, the pope asked the crowd to pray for him and invited non-believers to "send good wishes my way." Boehner, who said he'd dreamed of meeting a pope for two decades, stood beside Francis and pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket to wipe away his tears.
During the speech before Congress, lawmakers largely avoided the partisan ovations — one side standing, the other clapping politely or sitting on their hands — that frequently mark presidential State of the Union addresses. For the pope, when one side stood, the other generally rose as well. Republican were first to their feet when the pope raised concerns about the family; Democrats were first when he raised climate change.
Lawmakers were not reading text of the speech and did not appear primed for what the pope was going to say. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., let out a whoop heard throughout the chamber when the pope said the death penalty should be abolished.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., sitting next to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., brightened when Francis mentioned the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march 50 years ago. Sewell, who is from Selma, and Lewis, one of the African-American marchers beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of the march, nodded and smiled. As the pope lauded Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of full civil and political rights for African Americans,” Sewell and others patted Lewis on the back, and Lewis put his hand over his heart.
“That dream continues to inspire us all,” Pope Francis said.
It was the first standing ovation of the speech, led by Lewis.
Outside the Capitol, Todd Gaddis, 56, a Baptist minister from LaFayette, Ga., said he respects the pope very much but was a little disappointed in the speech. “I would have liked to see him spend more time with his focus on the eternal as opposed to the temporal. As one of the world’s most visible ministers, I’d like to have heard the name of Jesus a few more times quite frankly,” he said after he watched the speech on video. “That said, I’m on the Capitol steps, not in the church.”
Melinda Peter, 39, traveled with her 6-year-old daughter from 8 miles above the Arctic Circle to hold up a sign on the Capitol lawn proclaiming "Alaskan natives (heart) Pope Francis."
"We're Episcopal, but we like this pope because we know he's for indigenous people," she said.
After the speech, Congress turned to a debate over a looming government shutdown, creating an immediate opportunity to begin quoting the pope in political argument.