On Thursday, I was fortunate to have tickets to go to the lawn of the Capitol to watch the speech of Pope Francis to the joint session of Congress. The crowd was large and reverential. People had come for something rare in our democracy. They came to hear someone speak in front of politicians about the shared values and ethics that should inform our public policies.
Pope Francis spoke around four themes, which he identified with four great Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
Of Martin Luther King he said: “Politics is… an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good, that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort. Here I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams. Dreams, which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams, which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
The very next line brought the crowd on the Capitol lawn to its feet cheering. The Pope said: “Millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.” When he announced that Americans are not fearful of immigrants, the audience shouted its agreement.
Pope Francis then identified himself as an immigrant, as the son of Italians who moved across the Atlantic Ocean for a better life. He told Congress and the world that the persecution of immigrants is a sin, and asked that “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
He implored Americans to distain those who try to create “a mindset of hostility” towards immigrants. He called for parents “to educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors.”
Pope Francis reminded his listeners that we must observe the Golden Rule to do unto others, as we would have others do unto us. If we would want to be welcomed if we were refugees from persecution, then we must welcome refugees from other lands. If our ancestors came to America for a better life, then we should welcome those who want a better life for their children.
The Pope asked Americans to get beyond the media images of refugees trying to cross borders.
He said: “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.”
Seeing people as people, and not as “migrants” or “illegal aliens,” is central to the Pope’s call. He said that he wants us to respond to immigrants with a passion for their care and compassion for their suffering.
It wasn’t a political message, but a message based on ethics and values to remind Americans of the humanity of people who are marginalized.