WASHINGTON — Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in history on Thursday to break out of its cycle of polarization and paralysis to finally use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.
Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, the pontiff issued a vigorous call to action on issues largely favored by liberals, including a powerful defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.
In particular, Francis beseeched a nation that generates a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to not let money drive its decisions at the expense of humanity. “Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good,” he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited American icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said at the end of his speech, delivered in slow, cautious English. “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.”
After his much-anticipated remarks, the pope traveled a short distance from the grandeur of the Capitol to address the plight of Washington’s homeless at St. Patrick’s Church, and to share a meal with those who are without a place to live.
“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” the pope said, speaking in Spanish with an interpreter at the church. He urged the homeless to turn toward prayer for strength, and he beseeched those with means to remember them.
“We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person,” he said.
“Buen apetito,” he told the eaters before a meal of teriyaki chicken, Asian pasta salad and green beans.
The pope waded into the sea of tables where a crowd of mostly homeless men and women – including felons, mentally ill people, victims of domestic violence and substance abusers — were seated. He stopped to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet for the hours of waiting with special pope coloring books and crayons.
“I told him stay blessed and not stressed,” said Mark Perrez, 54, who is staying in a men’s shelter run by Catholic Charities.
Francis became the first pope ever to address a joint meeting of Congress, a milestone in the journey of the Catholic Church in the United States, and it generated enormous interest. Lawmakers, aides and invited guests jammed the historic chamber of the House of Representatives, while tens of thousands more people were invited to watch on jumbo screens on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
His high-profile address came at a time of deep partisan and ideological ferment over divisive policy questions that have so fractured the Congress that it is just days away from a government shutdown. Both sides were looking to his words for moral support for their arguments from a figure deliberately resistant to clean political definitions.
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