Pope Francis issues urgent appeal to US Congress

Pontiff’s extended speech touched on topics that bitterly divide US legislators

Pope Francis calls on the US Congress to help migrants during his first address to US lawmakers. Video: Reuters

 

Pope Francis, in a first address by a pontiff to the US Congress, made sweeping pleas to a deeply partisan government to embrace immigrants, tackle climate change and abolish the death penalty.

In a long speech that touched on many vexed topics that bitterly divide US legislators, the first Latin American pope appealed to the American traditions of co-operation and solidarity, calling on them to address the world’s most pressing problems head on.

Francis spoke passionately about opening the US to immigrants “so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.

On immigration, a subject that Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree on, the pope said that the world was “facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the second World War”.

Travel north

The pope noted the influx of immigrants into the US from Central and South America, saying that thousands were “led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?

“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.”

People should respond in a “way which is always humane, just and fraternal”, he told a packed House of Representatives chamber, standing in front of US vice-president Joe Biden, a Democrat and Republican House speaker John Boehner, both devout Catholics.

“We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome,” he said.

At a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the febrile 2016 Republican presidential race, the pontiff said that building a nation involved recognising “that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity”.

The emotional speech was at times too much for Mr Boehner, who has a propensity to succumb to tears on major public occasions.

The Republican leader, who was instrumental in bringing the pope to Congress, wiped tears from his eyes after the pope spoke.

The visit, the fourth to the US by a pontiff, has been warmly received by the American people. A five-year-old girl, Sophie Cruz, has become the face of his message on his five-day trip, his first to the US.

Passed barriers

Sophie, the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, who travelled to Washington from Los Angeles with her father, squeezed through the security barriers as the popemobile made its way through city streets on Wednesday.

 

The pope beckoned for his security guards to lift Sophie so he could embrace her. She gave him a letter pleading with him to help prevent her parents from being deported.

In an apparent reference to Congress’s inability to fix a broken immigration system, the pope asked lawmakers to “avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome”.

In an impassioned plea, the pope also called for the “global abolition of the death penalty”, saying that “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”.

He also forcefully defended the church’s traditional view of marriage, saying that he “cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without”.

In a remark that drew applause from Republican conservatives, the pontiff said: “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

Climate calls

Republicans were far less effusive when he called for action on climate change “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity”, and praised efforts by the Obama administration to rebuild relations with Iran and Cuba.

Democrats, on several occasions, stood to applaud the pope’s remarks that are in line with many of the party’s liberal policies, while Republicans remained silent before rising to their feet out of respect.

The pope also attacked arms dealing, an area that the US is a leader in as the largest exporter of conventional weapons, in some of the strongest terms of his speech.

“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked.

“Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

After his speech, the pope greeted an estimated 50,000 people gathered on the National Mall from the West Front of the Capitol. Today, he will be the fourth pope to address the UN in New York, and will then participate in a religious ceremony at the memorial in lower Manhattan to the victims of the September 11th, 2001 attacks.