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Pope Francis urges Congress to embrace migrants

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  • Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, making history as the first pontiff to do so. Listening behind the pope are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON » Standing before a rapt Congress, Pope Francis issued a ringing call to action on behalf of immigrants Thursday, urging lawmakers 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 United States’ own struggle with immigration from Latin America, Francis summoned lawmakers "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 lawmakers 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 center aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as lawmakers applauded, some inclining 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, as he had in the House chamber.

Thursday’s speech was the latest highlight for the pope’s whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on a three-city U.S. tour.

On Wednesday he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House — where he and President Barack Obama embraced each other’s warnings on climate change — paraded through Washington streets in his "popemobile," addressed U.S. bishops, noting the clergy sex abuse scandal, and celebrated a Mass of Canonization for Junipero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded major California missions.

Late Thursday, he moves on to New York and then later in the week 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.

Lawmakers of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations eagerly welcomed the pope, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them and hear him out. Yet Francis spoke to a Congress that has deadlocked on immigration legislation, at a time when there are more than 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, and where some lawmakers have balked at Obama administration plans to accept more of the migrants from Syria and elsewhere who are now flooding Europe.

Indeed, Francis arrived at a moment of particular turmoil for Congress, with a partial government shutdown looming next week unless lawmakers can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group’s practices providing fetal tissue for research. Boehner himself, who invited Francis to speak and met with him privately beforehand, is facing a brewing revolt from tea party members who’ve 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 lawmakers of both parties at the federal level, and spoke out against fundamentalism of all kinds, while urging care in combating it.

"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," Francis said.

On immigration, Francis urged lawmakers — and the United States as a whole — not to be afraid of migrants but to welcome them as fellow human beings, not things that can be discarded just because they are troublesome.

Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, recalled that America itself was founded by immigrants, that many lawmakers are descended from foreigners and that that new generations must not "turn their back on our neighbors."

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’ remarks lawmakers 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 back-bencher announced plans to boycott the speech over Francis’ activist position on climate change.

Francis reiterated that stance Thursday, 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.

Many lawmakers had vowed to preserve decorum throughout the speech and members of both parties listened intently, yet they did not completely contain their reactions. The mention of climate change drew standing cheers from Democrats while Republicans stood to applaud the reference to abortion. One Democratic House member let out a whoop of delight at the pope’s call to abolish the death penalty.

Republicans in particular also loudly applauded as Francis asserted the importance of family life and bemoaned that "fundamental relationships are being called into question as is the very basis of marriage and the family." The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, recently legalized by the Supreme Court.

Francis also criticized the arms trade, significant before Congress because the United States is the world’s largest exporter of weapons.

On Thursday, security was tight outside the Capitol, with streets blocked off and a heavy police presence that rivaled an Inauguration or State of the Union address by the U.S. president. The scene on the West Lawn was festive but orderly.

Libby Miller of Frederick, Maryland, said her friends all told her she was crazy for going to Capitol Hill with her 4-year-old son, Camden, and 2-year-old daughter, Avery. Miller, armed with toys, snacks and a sippy cup, found a spot on the Capitol lawn and said she wanted her kids to be there for an important moment in history. They won’t understand it now, she said, but "they’ll get it eventually."

Francis enjoys approval ratings the envy of any U.S. politician as he’s remade the image of the Catholic Church toward openness and compassion, yet without changing fundamental church doctrine. Addressing a chamber full of elected officials Thursday, he may have been the most adept politician in the room.

After speaking in the House chamber Francis stopped by the Capitol’s Statuary Hall and its statue of Father Serra.

Later, he planned to stop at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.

Text of Pope Francis remarks before Congress, as provided by the Federal News Service:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, honorable members of the Congress, dear friends, I am most grateful for the invitation to address this joint session of Congress in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I would like to think that the reason for this is that I, too, am a son of this great continent from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility. Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your one responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country by your legislative activity to grow as a nation.

You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.

A political society endures when it seeks as a vocation to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always best to take of the… people.

To this you have been invited, called and convicted by those who elect you. Yours is a walk which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of people to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus, to the threshold of dignity of the human being.

Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work. You are asked to protect by means of the law the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human life.

Today, I would like not only to address you, but through you, the entire people of the United States. Here together with the representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest days work, to bring home the daily bread, to save money, and one step at a time to build a better life for their families.

These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way, sustain the life of society. They… they generate solidarity by their actions and they create organizations which offer helping hand to those most in need. I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience and who seek in many ways especially through — for volunteer work to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active. They keep working to build up this land.

I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations — who are not led astray by facile proposals and face difficult situations, often — often as a result of immaturity on the part of many others.

I wish to dialogue with all of you and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people. My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and imitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice, some at the cost of their lives, to build a better future.

They shared fundamental values which endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts while always finding the resources to move forward and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing an imperfect reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired even amid conflict and in the here and now of each day to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty who labored tirelessly that this nation under God might have a new birth of freedom. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

All of us are quite aware of and deeply worried by the disturbing and political situation of the world today. 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. This means that 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. The contemporary world with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization, which would divide it into these two camps.

We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.

We are asked to summon the courage and intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effect of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent.

Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward, however, as one in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

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. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents and resolve to support one another with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continues to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery born of great injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

Politics is instead an expression of our compelling need to live as one in order to build as one the greatest common good, that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

Here, I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his dream of full civil and political rights for African-Americans.

That dream continues to inspire us all and I am happy that America continues to be for many, a land of dreams… dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment; dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of the people.

In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent are now fearful of foreigners because most of us… because most of us were once foreigners.

I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descendants from immigrants.

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. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but we know that it’s very difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.

Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appears to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.

We must resolve now to live as nobly as — and as justly as possible as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity in a constant effort to do our best. I’m confident that we can do this.

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. On this continent too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunity. If it’s not what we want for our own children… we must not be taken aback by the 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, 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.

Let us remember the golden rule, do unto others as you… do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This rule points us in a clear direction. Let us 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.

In a word, if we want security, let us give security.

If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.

The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time use for us.

The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.

I am convinced that this way is the best. Since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of death penalty.

Not only … not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the servant of God, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

How much progress has been in this area in so many parts of the world? How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty? I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and in times of crisis and economic hardship, a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost.

At the same time, I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially, in its causes.

I know that many Americans today as in the past are working to deal with this problem. It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.

Business is a noble vocation directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity from the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential job of its service to the common good.

This common good also includes the Earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to enter into the dialogue with all people about our common home. We need a conversation which includes everyone since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots concern and affect us all.

In… 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’m convinced that we can make a difference, I’m sure.

And I have no doubt that the United States, and this Congress, have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous action and strategies aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature.

We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is here, more human, more social, more integral. In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

A century ago, at the beginning of the great war, which Pope Benedict XV termed a pointless slaughter, another notable American was born, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and guide for many people. In his autobiography, Merton wrote, "I came into the world, free by nature, in the image of God. I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hunger."

Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women in any way possible to do the same.

When countries which have been at odds resume the path of the dialogue, a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons, new opportunities open up for all.

This has required courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.

A good political leader is one who, with the interest of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always hopes to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.

Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize, and in the long term to end, the many armed conflicts throughout our world.

Here, we have to ask ourselves, why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and societies? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money; money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.

In the face of the shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms drive.

Three sons and one daughter of this land; four individuals of four dreams. Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion ; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of American people.

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish throughout my visit the family should be a re-occurring theme: how essential the family has been to the building of this country… and how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement.

Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question that 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.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.

Their problems are our problems.

We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them, and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty, as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

In these remarks, I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. 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.

God bless America.

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