Pope Francis, the humble and self-deprecating leader of the world's Catholics, made a special appearance at the U.S. Congress to promote peace and justice. In the first-ever address of its type of a Pontiff to a joint session of Congress, the Pope touched on issues of climate change, immigration, economic inequality, and related issues of reconciliation.
Kicking off a nearly week-long visit to the U.S. after arriving from a warm welcome in Cuba, Pope Francis is making what will no doubt be highly-significant addresses at the White House, Congress, the United Nations, and Madison Square Garden. He will also give an outdoor Catholic Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday, which may end up drawing over one million of the faithful. His trip is expected to energize Catholics across the country, as well as those outside the Catholic Church who are attracted to the Pope's more open and engaging approach to social justice issues.
In addressing the special joint session of Congress, the Pope did not shy away from political issues. In fact, he spoke out directly about the challenge of economic inequality as a barrier to human freedom and dignity. He stated "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." By calling directly on these elected representatives to defend the common good of humanity, he challenged them to set aside partisan politics and work together for the sake of all.
Pope Francis specifically addressed the global refugee crisis, as well as the plight of immigrants everywhere seeking to find a better life for themselves and their families. In viewing those who would risk everything to find a new home, Francis said "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. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal." Invoking scripture along with an ecumenical spirit, he also reminded us to remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
Interestingly, Pope Francis referenced not only iconic figures from U.S. history like President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also prominent American Catholics who worked for social justice, like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. “A nation can be considered great,” Francis said, “when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their 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.”
By invoking such traditions, the Pope also invites us to rethink our approaches to promoting peace, justice, and equality for all people. Through his gentle, yet determined, approach, he provides a path forward for elected officials, scholars, and everyday people alike.