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Pope Francis tells Congress to focus on needs of their hardworking constituents, speaks of 'land of dreams'

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. Credit: AP / Carolyn Kaster

WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis Thursday challenged Congress and the American people to move beyond polarization to welcome immigrants and refugees, work for peace and inclusion, and protect the environment and the traditional family.

As the first pope to address a joint meeting of the House and Senate, the charismatic leader of the Roman Catholic Church called for a renewal of the "spirit of cooperation" that transformed the country into an inspirational "dream," and highlighted American icons Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Politics . . . is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good," Pope Francis said in the 50-minute speech he read in English to a receptive audience.

Yet the pope urged America to act on issues largely favored by Democrats and focused on the poor and marginalized in society. He only alluded to what most Republicans hoped to hear: his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

He stressed the need to respond to the Syrian "refugee crisis" and the thousands coming across the U.S. southern border, though opposition to those requests are fueling most GOP presidential campaigns.

The pope also attacked the excesses of capitalism, saying it must create jobs, and added that politics "cannot be a slave to the economy and finance."

Afterward, politicians from both sides of the aisle praised Pope Francis as an inspiring moral figure, despite what they hinted were policy differences.

"The Holy Father's visit is surely a blessing for all of us. With great blessings, of course, come great responsibility," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Boehner, a Catholic who succeeded in inviting a pope to address Congress after 20 years of trying, teared up in some appearances with the pontiff.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also Catholic, called the address "thrilling" on MSNBC. "The pope was very diplomatic and philosophical in what he said."

All five House members from Long Island and both New York senators attended and credited the pope with inspiring unity and compassion.

"My main take-away is that you have to apply a moral dimension to everything you do," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a Catholic. But King added, "The tone of that pope's speech is much more liberal than I would be."

Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, said despite those who saw politics in the speech, "he was appealing to our American soul."

Pope Francis drew cheers as he entered the House chamber, which paused from a battle that could shut the federal government next week as some Republicans push to defund Planned Parenthood over abortion.

The chamber was packed with senators and representatives, Vice President Joe Biden, diplomats, cabinet members and four Supreme Court justices. The court's three most conservative members -- all Catholics -- didn't show.

The speech had the feel of a State of the Union address, interrupted 40 times by applause. Nearly a dozen times, lawmakers stood to clap, led by Democrats, on mentions of immigration and refugees, and Republicans on the role of business in creating jobs, the sanctity of life and traditional families.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) let out a whoop of support when Francis called for an end to the death penalty.

Pope Francis framed his speech with the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- and the lives of four Americans, Lincoln, King, social activist Dorothy Day and religious mystic Thomas Merton.

Lincoln defended liberty; King enabled dreams of full rights; Day strove for justice for the oppressed, and Merton sowed peace with his contemplative style, the pope said.

Francis connected King's dream to the dream of immigrants, saying, "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners."

The pope spoke of "the right use of natural resources" and economic development that takes into account "all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty."

And he called for an end to the arms trade and praised diplomatic efforts, like the one he helped broker that led to restoring U.S.-Cuba relations.

Pope Francis said he would have more to say about abortion and same-sex marriage in Philadelphia this weekend.

It's "our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," he said. And he cautioned the family is "threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without."

After the speech, Boehner, Biden and other officials joined Pope Francis on the Capitol balcony facing 50,000 people who had stood outside to hear his address on large screens.

"I am so grateful for your presence here," he said in Spanish. "The most important ones here, children, I ask God to bless them. . . . And I ask you all please to pray for me. And if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way."


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