The visit of the Pope to the Congress in Washington is of utter historical importance. Francis is the first Pontiff who speaks in the American Parliament which, in its turn, listens to him in a joint session. A carpet of people covers the whole West Lawn, in the shadow of the Capitol Hill’s cupola where large screens have been installed to allow the events to be followed also from the outside. The Pontiff recalls four great America figures in order to reiterate the concepts of tolerance, religious freedom, racial respect, solidarity and, mutual help. And in order to say no to death penalty, a slap in the face of a ”tradition” America is reluctant to overcome. Another strong admonition: ”it is our duty to stop arms trafficking”. Roaring applauses come from the chairs, but there are also many puzzled faces. The Pope’s words arrive as a hurricane right in the middle of the Presidential election campaign, with all the populism which characterizes American society during this period.
In the folds of the Pope’s words there is an obvious recall to responsibility addressed to the politicians in ensuring the citizens’ dignity, especially that of those who are most vulnerable.; the importance of solidarity and dialog; the deceitful fundamentalisms and the violence perpetrated in the name of religion; politics free of economic and financial influences; the migratory phenomenon: the fight against poverty and the need to take care of nature; the threat under which the families are and the disoriented new generations.
I am very grateful – has said Francis – for your invitation to speak in this Plenary Assembly of the Congress in ”the land of the free and in the home of the brave”. I like thinking that the reason for this is the fact that I am a son of this large continent as well, from which all of us have received a lot and for which we all share responsibility. Every son of a given nation has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of the Congress is to allow this country, thanks to your legal activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of this people, its representatives. You are called to preserve and guarantee the dignity of your citizens in a tireless and exigent pursue of the common good, the goal of all politics.
A society lasts in time when it does its best, as a vocation, to satisfy the necessities of everyone. inciting thus all of its members to grow, especially those in particularly vulnerable and risky conditions. Legislative activity is always based on taking care of people. This what you have been invited, called for, and summoned by those who have elected you.
Your activity makes me reflect on two aspects of Moses’ figure. On the one hand the patriarch and the legislator of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of the peoples to keep alive their sense of continuity with the right legislation. On the other hand, Moses’ figure leads us directly to God and therefore to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses offers us a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, with the tools of law, the image and the likeness modeled by God on every human face.
Today, I would like to address not only you, but, through you, also the entire people of the United States. Here, together with its representatives, I would like to dialog with the millions of men and women who struggle every day to have a honest day of work, to bring home the daily bread, to spare some money – step by step – to build a better life for their families. Those men and women do not worry only about paying taxes, but in the discreet way that is proper to them, support the life of society. They produce solidarity with their activities and create organizations that help those who are in need.
I would also like to open a dialog with elderly people who are bearers of wisdom forged with experience and which seek, in many ways, especially through voluntary activity, to share their stories and experiences. I know that many of them are retired, but still active. They continue to work in order to build this country. I would like to address also those young people who are working hard to transform their higher aspirations, who are not deviated by shallow proposals and who face difficult situations. often resulting in the lack of maturity among some adults. I would like to address all of you and I want to do so through the historic memory of your people-
My visit – has continued the Pope – takes place in a moment when men and women of good will are celebrating the anniversaries of some great Americans. Despite the complex nature of history and despite real human weakness, those men and women, with all their differences and their limitations, have been able to build a better future through hard work and personal sacrifice. They gave shape to fundamental values, that are going to stay forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can overcome many crises, tensions and conflicts, whereas always able to find the strength to go on with dignity. Those men and women offer us the possibility to observe and interpret reality. Honoring their names, we are incited, even in the middle of conflicts, in the concreteness of every-day life, to draw from our deep cultural resources.
I would like to mention four such Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. This year falls the 150th anniversary of the assassination of the President Abraham Lincoln, the keeper of freedom, who worked tirelessly for ”this nation, with God’s protection, to be able to see new liberty being born. To build a future made of freedom and love of common good and collaboration in a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity.
All of us are completely aware, although also deeply worried about it, of the current unrest in the social and political situation in the world. Our world is becoming increasingly a place of violent conflicts, hatred and brutal atrocities. perpetrated even in the name of God. We know that no religion is immune to individual deceit and ideological extremism. It means that we must specific attention to any manifestation of both religious and ideological fundamentalism. A delicate balance is needed in order to fight violence perpetrated in the name of religion, of an ideology or of an economic system, whereas preserving religious, intellectual, and individual freedom. But there is yet another temptation from which we need to hold back: mere reductionism which distinguishes only between the good and the bad ones, or if you like, between rightful and sinful people. Contemporary world and its open wounds move profoundly many brothers and sisters and demand for any polarization that could divide those two camps to be faced. We know that trying to get rid of the external enemy, we can be tempted to feed the internal one. Imitating the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. This is something you , as a people, refused.
We, however, must be a response of hope and healing, peace and justice. We are asked to appeal to courage and intelligence to solve the many economic and geopolitical crises today. Even in the developed world, the effects of structures and unjust actions are all too obvious. Our efforts should aim at restoring peace, correcting mistakes keep commitments and thus promote the well-being of individuals and peoples. We must move forward together, as if we were one, in a renewed spirit of brotherhood and solidarity, working generously for the common good.
The challenges we face today require a renewal of that spirit of cooperation which has brought so much good in the history of the United States. The complexity, severity and urgency of these challenges ask us to employ our resources and talents, and we decide to support each other, with respect for our differences and the convictions of our conscience.
In this land, the various religious denominations have contributed much to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, for the voice of faith to be heard, because it is a voice of brotherhood and love, which seeks to bring out the best in every person and in every society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle for eliminating forms of global slavery, born of serious injustices, that can only be overcome through new policies and new forms of social consensus.
At this point I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the spirit of the American people. Any political activity must serve and promote the wellbeing of people and must be based on the respect for everyone’s dignity. “We consider those truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which there are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776). If politics is to be truly at the service of the human being, it follows that it cannot be subjected to economy and finance. Politics is, however, an expression of our irrepressible need to live together in unity, in order to build together the greatest common good: that of a community that sacrifice individual interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its benefits, interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the existence of difficulties on that path, but I encourage you to make the effort.
I also think about the march Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to achieve his “dream ” of full civil and political rights for African-Americans. That dream continues to inspire us. I rejoice that America continues to be, for many, a land of ” dreams “. Dreams that lead to action, participation, commitment. Dreams that awaken what the deepest and truest aspects of people’s lives. In recent centuries, millions of people have reached this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not afraid of foreigners, because many of us had been foreigners once. I say this as the son of immigrants, knowing that many of you are descendants of immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.
For those peoples and their nations, from the very heart of the American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my deep esteem and consideration. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past with present criteria. However, when the stranger among us calls for us, we must not repeat the sins and the mistakes of the past. We have to decide now to live as nobly and justly as possible, and educate the new generations not to turn away from their “neighbor” and everything around us. Building a nation requires us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting hostility so as to be able to adopt mutual subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I believe that we can make it.
Our world is facing a refugee crisis of proportions that have not been seen since the Second World War. This reality puts us in front of major challenges and many tough decisions. On this continent, thousands of people are forced to move to the North in search of better opportunities. Is this not what we wanted for our children? We should not be frightened by their number, but rather see them as people, look at their faces and hear their stories, trying to respond the best possible way. Respond in a way that is more human, just and fraternal. We must avoid a temptation that is rather common today: to reject anyone who is problematic. Remember the Golden Rule: “Do to the others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
Usually, this indicates a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for the others the same opportunities that we seek for ourselves. We help others to grow, as we want to be helped ourselves. In short, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The measure we use with the others will be the measure time will use with us. The Golden Rule puts us also in front of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
This belief has led me, since the beginning of my ministry, to support the global abolition of death penalty on various levels. I am convinced that this is the best solution, since all life is sacred and every person has an inalienable dignity. Society can benefit only from the rehabilitation of those who are convicted for crimes.
Recently my brothers bishops here in the United States have renewed their call for the abolition of death penalty. I not only support them, but I also offer support to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment should never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.
At a time when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social commitment, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, by faith and by the example of the saints.
How much progress has been made in this field in many parts of the world! How much has been done during those first years of the third millennium to release people from extreme poverty! I know you share my conviction that much more needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic difficulty you should not lose the spirit of global solidarity. I also want to encourage you not to forget all the people around us, trapped in the circle of poverty. We need to give them hope as well. The war on poverty and hunger must be constantly fought on many different fronts, especially on that of their causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, work to fight this problem.
It goes without saying that part of this great effort lies in the creation and in the distribution of wealth. The proper use of natural resources, the appropriate application of technology and the ability to direct the entrepreneurial spirit, are essential elements of an economy that tries to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable. “Entrepreneurial activity, which is a noble vocation, which aims at creating wealth and improving the world for everyone, can be a very fruitful way to promote the region where it places its activities, especially if that includes the creation of workplaces as an inseparable part of his service in the name of the common good” (Enc. Praised be ‘129). This common good includes the Earth, the central topic about which I have recently wrote, so as to “open dialogue with everyone on the subject of respect towards our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a meeting that will unite us all, because the environmental challenge that we live, and its human roots, affect us and affect us all” (ibid., 14).
In the Encyclical ‘‘Praised be’’ I urge people to a brave and responsible effort to “change the course” (ibid., 61) and avoid the most serious effects of environmental degradation caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play in it. Now it is time for bold action and strategies for implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to fight poverty, restore dignity to the excluded ones and at the same time to take care of nature” (ibid., 139). We have the necessary freedom to limit and direct the technology (cf. ibid., 112), to find clever ways to “guide, nurture and limit our power” (ibid., 78) and to put technology “at the service of a different kind of progress, a healthier, more humane, more social and more integral one” (ibid., 112). To this regard, I am confident that the American institutions and academic research can make a vital contribution in the years to come.
A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV called a “senseless slaughter”, was born another great American: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of inspiration and spiritual guidance for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, the image of God, I was, nonetheless, a prisoner of my own violence selfishness, in the image of the world in which I was born. That world was a picture of hell, full of people like me, who love God, yet hated him; who were born to love, but lived in the fear of desperate and contradictory desires. “Merton was first of all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certainties of this time and opened new horizons for the souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialog, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
In this context of dialog, I would like to recognize the efforts made during the recent months to try to overcome historical differences related to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and help every man and woman, in every possible way, to do the same. When nations that were at odds resume the path of dialog – a dialogue that may have been interrupted for the strongest reasons – new opportunities are open to all. This required, and requires courage and audacity, which do not mean irresponsibility. A good political leader is one that, in the interests of everyone, captures the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts for “starting processes rather than having spaces” (ibid., N. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).
Being at the service of dialog and peace means also being really determined to reduce and, in the long term, to put an end to many armed conflicts around the world. Here we must ask ourselves: why lethal weapons are sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering to individuals and society? Unfortunately, the answer, as we all know, is simply money: money that is soaked in blood, often innocent blood. Facing this shameful and guilty silence, we must address the problem and stop arms trafficking.
Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, freedom; Martin Luther King, plurality and freedom without exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and human rights; and Thomas Merton, capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.
I end my visit to your land in Philadelphia, where I will partake in the World Meeting of the Families. I wish family to be a recurrent topic throughout my entire visit. How important was the family in the construction of this country! And how much support and encouragement it still deserves from us! Yet I cannot hide my concern about the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Keynote speeches were questioned, as well as the very basis of marriage and of the family. I can only reiterate the mportance, and especially the richness and the beauty of the family life.
In particular, I would like to draw attention to those family members who are most vulnerable, that is, to young people. For many of them looms a future with many possibilities, but many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a maze without hope, marked by violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We must face them together, talk about it and seek effective solutions rather than being bogged down in discussions. Taking the risk of trivializing, we could say that we live in a culture that encourages young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. But the same culture has so many other options that it discourages also the others from creating a family.
A nation can be considered great when it defends freedom, as Lincoln did; when it is promoting a culture that allows people to “dream” full rights for all the brothers and sisters, like Martin Luther King tried to do; when the struggle for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did with her tireless work, the result of a faith which transforms into sowing peace and dialogue in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
In those notes – said Francesco – I have tried to present some of the wealth of your heritage, the spirit of the American people. My hope is that this spirit will continue to develop and grow, so that the largest possible number of young people can inherit and dwell in a land that has inspired so many people to dream. God bless America!