Pope Francis touched on controversial topics—immigration, climate change and the death penalty—during an address Sept. 24 to both houses of Congress.
It was the first time a pope has addressed Congress. Local elected officials in attendance at the address in Washington, D.C., were inspired by the pope’s words as were Catholic high school students in the metro-east who watched the pope’s address during class the morning of Sept. 24.
“I liked the way he brought up some modern issues like global warming and stuff like that,” said Dillon Heinz, a junior at Father McGivney High School in Maryville. “I like the way he referenced people like Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln. I thought that was pretty cool. I also really like his accent. I think all of what he said was pretty profound.”
Classmate Danielle Boulanger, a junior at Father McGivney, said, “I also thought it was pretty amazing, just by the basic fact it’s the first time a pope addressed Congress in such a way, but also because he addressed problems like global warming and poverty but also tied in pretty important issues of upholding the dignity of human life, starting at conception.”
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Matthew Schaefer, a junior at Althoff Catholic High in Belleville, was blown away by the pope’s address.
“I thought it was by far one of the best speeches I heard in my life,” he said. “I thought it was amazing how near the end he said how we should make America into what the founding idea was—a place where people of every background has equal chance. Anyone can have a family, a house, a job.”
Classmate Royce Payne, a junior at Althoff, said: “I really liked how he expressed his feelings toward the way all of our races need to be more connected. We need to be more united as a people, because we all share the same world. I really like how he also stated the Golden Rule—do unto others as you want done onto you.”
Therese Beabout, a junior at Gibault Catholic High in Waterloo, said she was impressed by the words of the pope, who she described as “one of the most prevalent leaders in the world” at this time.
“The pope embraces the lifestyle of joining bridges and connecting the Catholic family,” Beabout said. “We were able to witness both houses of congress unite in one body to hear the pope speak.”
Illinois’ senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, were in attendance at the pope’s, as were Reps. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro; Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville; and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
Durbin, a Democrat, said Sept. 24 marked a “special day” on Capitol Hill.
He described the pope as a “man who has really captured the imagination of the people around the world. He is the real thing and I think that is what comes through.”
“He continues to challenge all of us, every person, whether you are Catholic or not, to lead a better life and help people,” Durbin said. “I hope his message resonates with all of us who had a chance to hear it.”
Durbin said he was honored to be able to shake the pope’s hand following his address.
Kirk, a Republican, urged people to heed the pontiff’s message.
“In the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, whom Pope Francis...called ‘the guardian of liberty,’ America symbolizes freedom and human dignity around the world,” Kirk said. “It is an honor to have Pope Francis, who is a symbol of love and compassion for more than a billion Catholics around the world and 3.8 million in Illinois, in the United States. May we take his message of unity and cooperation to heart.”
Shimkus said: “His Holiness was very careful in his words to ensure that he caused no ill will between some of the divergent views in Congress. He reminded us that the United States is both an immigrant nation and a world leader. That unique position and power, as the pope said, calls us to be compassionate and helpful. I think that’s a message we all need to hear and I’m glad he delivered it.”
Bost said he had to “pay very, very close attention” to the pope’s words during the address, as English is not the pope’s native language. The 78-year-old pontiff is Argentine.
Bost said there were many things the pope said that he “strongly” agrees with, including the importance of family. However, there were other items where their views differed slightly, such as with global warming.
“I know his position on climate change is a very strong position,” Bost said. “I believe that…we should do everything we can to be good stewards. However, not at the sacrifice of those jobs that are so vitally important in my district. We have to be good stewards of the environment, but we shouldn’t have rules via law that make it to where we put ourselves in a position where we can’t compete in a worldwide market.”
Davis, who converted to Catholicism in 2001, said he was energized by the pope’s message that he said “reinforces our shared goal of putting people first. I’m energized because he took the opportunity to address the U.S. Congress. He took the opportunity to accept an invitation that no other popes have accepted.”
The pope’s remarks came just days before lawmakers must pass a federal budget to avoid a shutdown. While the debate over whether Planned Parenthood should keep its federal funds may play a deciding factor in budget negotiations, Davis said that he’s “already voted to ensure Planned Parenthood would not be eligible to receive federal funding” until a Congressional inquiry into allegations the organization sells fetus parts for profits is complete. He added, however, that “I will do everything I can to avoid a shutdown.”
Invited guests and members of Congress and the House were permitted to invite guests to hear the pope’s address. Bost invited Catholic priests within his district and 10 were able at attend, including Bishop Edward Braxton of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, who accompanied Bost as his guest in the House. Braxton was seated in the visitors’ gallery during the address.
After the address, the pope made a brief appearance on the West Front of the Capitol, where thousands of guests were invited to stand on the lawn and watch the pope’s address on large screens.
Bost had 30 of his constituents in attendance, including the Father Jim Deiters of St. Clare Catholic Church in O’Fallon. Deiters said he appreciated Bost’s invitation.
“It was a really creative thing for a congressman to do to connect to his people,” Deiters said.
Paul Evans, an attorney in O’Fallon, traveled to D.C. to hear the pope’s address with his wife Sandy, 23-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son as guests of Bost.
Evans was struck by the diversity of the people in the crowd outside the Capitol.
“It helped to illustrate and bring to life the pope’s word,” he said. “The one pleasant surprise for me, he put emphasis on the need for family. He really emphasized the importance of family. I thought that was a nice refocusing on the fundamental aspect of America.”
Canonization Mass Reverend Monsignor John McEvilly with the Diocese of Belleville was also in Washington, D.C. last week. On Sept. 23, he attended the Mass where the pope canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
McEvilly described the Mass as a “very moving experience. To me, it’s overwhelming, I’m still processing it,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
McEvilly said he’s been watching the constant news coverage of the pope since he arrived Sept. 22, including the pope’s address to Congress.
“I came to attend one (event), but the reality is I attended all,” he said. “It was a bigger experience than I expected.”
During the pope’s address to Congress, McEvilly said the pope “touched upon every issue that affects Congress and our world, but he did so through reference of individuals.”
Pope Francis talked about President Abraham Lincoln, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., social activist Dorothy Day and Trappist monk Thomas Merton in his speech.
“He spoke from the heart and he spoke from the Gospel whether he was talking to congress or giving a homily,” McEvilly said of the pope.
The BND’s Tobias Wall contributed to this report.