WASHINGTON — Pope Francis underscored the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton during his historic Sept. 24 address before a joint session of Congress.
“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,” the pope said in his speech, the first time the Bishop of Rome has spoken to Congress.
The pope took on a variety of issues important to both Democrats and Republicans, from immigration to marriage to religious liberty and capital punishment, for which he is advocating a global abolition.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since 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,” the pope said, adding that the U.S. bishops have also called for an end to the death penalty.
He recognized the United States and all of North and South America, as a land of immigrants. Still, he noted that the rights “of those who were here long before us were not always respected.”
The family is being threatened as never before, he also said.
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
The Holy Father also addressed the persecution of Christians in the world.
“Our world in increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and religion,” he said after noting this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination. “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
To navigate the challenges facing the country, the pope held up Lincoln, King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as examples of Americans who gave their lives for justice.
“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
Yet for the thousands gathered on the Capitol’s West Front Lawn, the moment they’ll remember is when the Holy Father greeted them from the balcony, a white dot among black suits.
In his brief remarks, the pope asked those gathered to pray for him. “And if you don’t believe in God or are unable to pray, please wish good things for me.”
During the joint meeting, the pope said that children’s problems are the nation’s problems. He added to that from the balcony, saying that the children were the most important people there.
“Even though I’m not Catholic, I wanted to come to see what he had to say,” said Greyson Kiondo, Jr., a seventh-grader at Our Lady of Victory in Washington. “He’s a beacon of hope to people.”
His classmate Elenor Bender said the group of students had to wake up early to make it on time.
“It was very exciting,” she said.
Students from St. Mary in Crown Point, Indiana, also made it to the capital.
“Being able to witness this happening is such a blessing,” eighth-grader Lillienyne Tompson said. “When he was talking about all life being sacred, that really spoke to me.”
Katie Braulick, who came to the Capitol from Minnesota with her brother and her infant, said the pope spoke “truth that the world needs to hear.”
She was moved when the pope highlighted the value of children.
“Every mother knows that,” she said. “I was moved to tears. All you want is the best for your children. When they’re getting a blessing from the pope, it’s overwhelming.”
Tim Deely, a seminarian with the Diocese of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, came to the Capitol with a dozen other seminarians.
“The thing I find inspiring is the emphasis on getting out and going to the marginalized — whether that’s the immigrant, the unborn or the environment,” he said. “People really feel a connection with the pope, even my friends who aren’t Catholic.”
He said the pope’s speech transcended political divisions and connected issues that are typical points of contention between the parties.
“His speech transcended that,” Deely said. “These things are important for living a good Christian life.”