To a legislative chamber that has become a House of Horrors, Pope Francis managed to bring something miraculous: quiet, decorum, soaring eloquence, political savvy and historical acumen. If his visit to America accomplishes nothing else, he has brought momentary peace to this unruly, dysfunctional institution.
In recent times, in this same chamber, a member of the House has interrupted a speech by President Barack Obama by calling him a liar; the Republican majority has voted countless times to repeal the Affordable Care Act; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken to a joint session, largely to torpedo the Iran nuclear agreement.
In sharp contrast, Pope Francis spoke gently, but forcefully. And he masterfully wove into his speech the lives and lessons of four great Americans -- only one of them a politician. He cited President Abraham Lincoln, whose emancipation proclamation went a long way toward freeing the slaves, for liberty. He lifted up the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for his dream of equality and inclusivity. He praised Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement -- a woman who had an abortion and is now on the road to canonization -- for her tireless pursuit of social justice. And he quoted at length from the work of Thomas Merton, the hedonist-turned-Trappist-monk who became one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century, endorsing Merton's passion for dialogue with other religions.
For me, the highlight of the speech was the pope's brilliant evocation of the lives of personal heroes like King, Day, Merton. Many conservative Catholics have been instinctively suspicious of Merton, precisely because of his friendships in and openness to other traditions, especially Buddhism. To hear Francis cite Merton as an avatar of dialogue, one of the pope's most important principles, was deeply satisfying. It was equally uplifting to hear him praise King's dream and to embrace Day--dwelling not on her abortion, but on her work for the poor, another of the pope's consistent themes.
"He's the pope that does not condemn," said Sister Rosalie Carven, at the Hauppauge gathering where I watched the speech. "He's the pope that supports."
Beyond the slyly gentle effectiveness of the pope's many quotable phrases, one of the fascinating elements of the event was John Boehner's tears. The speaker of the House is well known for his low threshold for weeping. So when people I sat with at the Long Island Federation of Labor noticed that he appeared to be crying, we wondered: Was it just another example of his hard-to-control waterworks? Or was it something else?
Was Boehner, a Catholic, weeping because he had been trying for so long and so unsuccessfully to get a pope on that rostrum, only to find himself now stuck with a social justice pope who doesn't much like savage capitalism? Was he thinking of challenges to his speakership? Or was he reacting to something the pope said, maybe about all of us being immigrants? Did Boehner tearfully recall that, among the Indians who occupied this continent for thousands of years, there was no one named Boehner?
The answer I liked best came from one of the people sitting in the federation's conference room, in one of three gatherings arranged by Long Island Jobs with Justice, an organization deeply concerned with the poor. The room was filled with people concerned with social justice, including union people. One of them, who described himself as a devout Catholic, was Timothy Dembek, of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union. As he heard it, Francis offered an opportunity for those who speak harshly about immigration to reflect on the speech and to broaden their thinking.
"Maybe they weren't crocodile tears," Dembek said. "Maybe they were real tears. He opened the door for a lot of politicians to walk through and change their position."
Whether those doors open or not, the pope did give a deeply thoughtful, powerful, and conversational speech. It didn't please everyone, of course. One Republican congressman,
Paul Gosar of Arizona, said he was boycotting the proceedings, because, on issues such as climate change, Francis had begun to "act and talk like a leftist politician." But if he'd been there, he might have been apoplectic when the pope didn't actually utter the word abortion, but praised a woman who had one. (Francis spoke eloquently about the sanctity of all human life, which he clearly meant to include unborn life. No one doubts his position on abortion, but the life issue he emphasized was a call for global abolition of the death penalty.)
But apoplexy -- or euphoria, for that matter -- was not supposed to be the order of the day. In a rare act of bipartisanship, leaders of both houses wrote a letter telling members not to act like selfie-seeking groupies as the pope proceeded up the aisle. There was also agreement in advance on a major ovation as he arrived, followed by genteel silence. None of the behavior customary at State of the Union speeches: stony silence to raucous applause, depending on party.
And it worked, briefly. The members restrained themselves as he walked up the aisle, after the odd announcement: "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See."
But when Francis used the phrase "the land of the free and the home of the brave," that drew laughter and a bit of a standing ovation -- a bipartisan one.
Throughout his speech, there were many outbursts of applause. The pope spoke movingly of immigration, of climate change, of the centrality of the family, of the need for dialogue. For someone who had never set foot in the United States, he seemed to have acquired a real feel for the nation and its people.
Before the speech, Richard Koubek, the community outreach coordinator of Jobs with Justice, had held up a copy of a compendium of Catholic social teaching and pointed out that journalists are wrongly reacting to Francis as if he's pioneering when he talks about social justice. "He's not inventing anything," Koubek said. "What he's doing, I think, is presenting it in a very clear and dramatic way, so that it resonates."
"Common good" came up often in the speech. Francis even called it "the chief aim of all politics." And his remarks were full of thought-provoking phrases and sentences. He spoke, for example, of "the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners." I thought I heard a faint rumble of oohs in the chamber, and I couldn't help but think of President George W. Bush dividing the world between freedom-lovers and evildoers.
There was so much to digest. His concern for the vast Syrian refugee influx in Europe was just one example.He also cited the flow of immigrants into America from south of the border. "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," he said. "To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."
The rhetoric was often soaring, but sometimes kindly biting. "A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces." In a chamber where too many politicians for too long have occupied space, but produced little, those are words that should be engraved on the walls.
Finally, one of the elements of his speech we should not forget was the Spanish accent. There were a couple of rough moments, when the accent became difficult to grasp, but we managed to understand the vast majority of it. In a nation where the cry of "learn English" often comes from people with a shaky grasp of our difficult language, we have to remember: Spanish is here to stay. In any language, his was a brilliantly moving speech, and it will grow even better with repeated readings.
Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.