Pope Francis Urges Nation’s Leaders to Work Together in a Renewed Spirit of Solidarity for the Common Good
As the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis stood before lawmakers not as a politician, but as a pastor, like he did the day before with the President. He came to offer in these moments of encounter and dialogue “words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles” (Address at the White House).
Pope Francis urged our nation’s leaders to embrace a spirit of solidarity and cooperation, saying in the House chamber, “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.” Lifting up as inspirational figures Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, our Holy Father said that, in response to the world’s challenges, “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.”
This includes “safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms,” emphasized the Pope. Praising President Lincoln, who “labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom,’” the Holy Father noted the vast contributions that religion has made to this nation, and implored, “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.”
As our Holy Father has throughout his ministry, he affirmed that “every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity.” Accordingly, he reminded lawmakers of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” To that end, he called for a global abolition of capital punishment, adding, “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
As I listened from the gallery of the House chamber along with other guests, I will never forget how this humble figure in white described himself simply as “the son of immigrants.” Just as God reminded Israel that they were once strangers and thus should be hospitable to immigrants (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:19), Pope Francis reminded us that most of our ancestors were once foreigners from another land, as he encouraged legislators to respect the aspirations of immigrants coming to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their children. We must “view them as persons,” he said, “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.” Specifically, he continued, we should treat them and “others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” according to the Golden Rule.
The Holy Father also encouraged a “spirit of global solidarity” to help people “trapped in a cycle of poverty.” This effort necessarily includes the need to work together to address threats to the environment that especially impact the poor around the world, he said. At the White House, the Pope called for dialogue and cooperative efforts to protect our common home, and to promote sustainable development to help lift the poor out of poverty. He continued this plea before Congress. Quoting his recent encyclical on ecology, he said, “Now is the time for courageous actions 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’” (Laudato Si’, 231, 139).
Members of Congress applauded the Pope’s address about three dozen times, and some of the loudest applause came when he saluted the legacy of Dr. King, noting that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The slain civil rights leader’s “dream of full civil and political rights for African Americans… continues to inspire us all,” Pope Francis said. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many a land of ‘dreams’ – dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment.”
Our Holy Father also commended Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who lived with and served the poor. 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,” he said. Similarly, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who championed interfaith dialogue and cooperation, 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.”
How fitting it was that Pope Francis in his historic address highlighted the lives and legacies of Americans who through their faith show us the way to a future marked by protection of liberty, respect for the human dignity of all, service to those most in need, and working together for the common good. That message should resonate with us all.