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Pope highlights work of New York homeless advocate

Pope Francis gives a thumbs-up while greeting school

Pope Francis gives a thumbs-up while greeting school children before departing the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, en route to the Capitol to address a joint meeting of Congress. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- Right after Pope Francis addressed some of the most powerful people in the country -- members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, the vice president -- he immediately went to visit some of the least powerful.

Francis rode a mile or so from the U.S. Capitol to St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where homeless people were gathered inside and outside, ready to share a meal with the pontiff under a tent.

For them, it was almost unbelievable -- a pope coming to visit them and ask them to pray for him. Patricia Davis Cooper, 71, who was homeless for 2 1/2 years in Washington, D.C., had to grab the hand of a Catholic Charities worker at St. Patrick's Church when the pontiff walked in because she was so overcome with emotion. "I can't believe it," she shouted.

In his address at the church, Francis denounced homelessness. "We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing," the pope said.

He struck a similar theme in his address to Congress, citing as a role model Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who espoused a different option for the poor by living like one of them in houses she established that offered impoverished people food, shelter and clothing.

"Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints," Francis told Congress.

For some analysts, it was shocking that a pope would hold up Dorothy Day as a role model, something church leaders in the past would never have done, they said. New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman, for example, once told Day to take the word "Catholic" out of her group's name.

But Day is exactly the type of Catholic Pope Francis wants the faithful to emulate, said Gerard O'Connell, Rome correspondent for the Jesuit-run magazine America. "The pope himself is radical" in the sense he wants to go to the root of Gospel teachings about social justice, O'Connell said. "He feels like these two are kindred spirits."

Catholic Worker houses have sprouted up around the country and the world since Day co-founded the movement in 1933.

In Manhattan, home to two Catholic Worker houses, including one where Day used to live, the pope's mention of her elicited surprise and elation Thursday. "I could have fallen off my seat," said Kate Hennessy, Day's granddaughter, who'd stopped by Maryhouse on the Lower East Side. "She's been forgotten for a while -- obviously not here -- but you always hope for recognition. It's been really wonderful to hear that others know she's heroic, because we've always known that growing up."

In denouncing homelessness, Francis cited the story of Jesus' birth in a manger. "The son of God came into this world as a homeless person," the pope said at St. Patrick's. "The son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head."With Emily Ngo

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