For the first time ever, a pope addressed the U.S. Congress and, in another first, that Pope was able to say, “I too am a son of this great continent”. The event was truly historical, not only for these unprecedented circumstances, but especially for Bergoglio’s words to the top representatives of American democracy, whom he addressed for nearly an hour. The discourse, which the Pontiff delivered in English, was interrupted 38 times by applause which was often unanimous and which, at the beginning, the end and 10 times in between, also brought the majority of the assembly to their feet in a sign of consensus.
Politics and legislative activity are always based on taking care — an expression often used by Bergoglio — of the people. For this reason the Pope evoked the figure of Moses, the lawgiver of Israel, who symbolizes unity and at the same time reminds us of the transcendent dignity of each human being. The Pontiff made special reference, however, to four great representatives of the United States, whose various anniversaries are being celebrated: Abraham Lincoln, president and “guardian of liberty”; Martin Luther King, with his dream of equal rights for African Americans; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and a passionate activist in the cause of the oppressed; and Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, a man of prayer and of dialogue.
As he spoke of the four figures and of their dreams, Bergoglio listed global issues that need to be faced today. The increasing violence and atrocities, often perpetrated in the name of religion; the resulting need to fight all forms of fundamentalism while at the same time continuing to listen to the voice of faith, as the political history of the United States has demonstrated from the very Declaration of Independence, which the Holy Father quoted meaningfully in his address. He then arrived at the crux of the powerful wave of immigration, which has not occurred — noted the Pope, mentioning that he too is a son of immigrants — since the end of World War II.
The Pope spoke again of the urgent need throughout the world to bring an end to the death penalty and to fight poverty. He then turned to climate change, which is threatening the entire planet, most notably the poorest, and then to the enormous economic interests which underlie the weapons trade. The Pontiff then touched on the importance and the beauty of the family — the theme of the World Meeting in Philadelphia — which today as never before is weakened, with serious consequences especially for the young. He concluded with the wish that the spirit of the American people continue to inspire great dreams.
Pope Francis’ final meeting in Washington, DC, was with a group of homeless people who, in a touching meditation, he compared to the family of Jesus. The first appointment after his arrival in New York City — where thousands had flocked to the streets to wait for him — was in the recently restored St Patrick’s Cathedral, for Vespers. Many religious were present and the Pontiff did not miss the opportunity to praise the religious women of the United States: “What would the Church be without you?”, he asked. “Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel”. His words were met by thunderous applause. To these “sisters and mothers” of the American people, Francis expressed “a big thank you”, adding that he loves them very much.
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