One of the most widely reported highlights of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was his historic visit to Capitol Hill last Wednesday. In the first-ever address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress, Francis tackled several humanitarian subjects that he urged U.S. lawmakers to address. On immigration, he told the assemblage of some of the highest- ranking officials in our country: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” That statement generated applause.
The challenge faced by Francis on the immigration issue was significant, because he was addressing a Congress that offers an immigration policy focused upon the construction of a wall along the Mexican border. Nonetheless, he urged lawmakers not to “be taken aback” by the numbers of the “thousands of persons [who] travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones.” “Rather view them as persons,” he said, “seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
According to Francis, what stands in the way of congressional action and what causes so much of the unnecessary suspicion and hatred in the world is what he called “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”
To some, it seemed inappropriate for a foreign head of state—which, as the leader of the Vatican as well as the Roman Catholic Church, Francis is—to tell the freely elected U.S. Congress how to do its job. But that is exactly what he did, and he supported his remarks by citing the Book of Exodus, and the Jewish prophet and lawgiver Moses: “Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work,” he explained. “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Francis chose to speak truth to power. And he is to be commended for that. In turn, Congress showed deep respect and genuine delight in its hosting of the immensely popular “people’s pope.” But now that the celebration has subsided, we wait to see whether Congress actually follows the pope’s guidance or simply satisfies itself with more applause.