By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 2, 2015
ATLANTA—Pope Francis told members of Congress and government leaders to work together “to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
The pope in his historic speech on Thursday, Sept. 24, standing at the podium of the U.S. House of Representatives encouraged the hundreds of lawmakers to resolve problems with dialogue. He used the term in his speech 12 times.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” said Pope Francis. “The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
At Emory University, later that day, over 200 people listened to a panel of three scholars digest the speech and highlight its implications for the country.
Theologian Marie Marquardt called the pope’s speech pastoral and prophetic. His words and vision “stubbornly refuse(s) to fit into our established boundaries,” she said.
In Pope Francis’ speech, the lives of four Americans—President Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., activist Dorothy Day and monk and author Thomas Merton—illustrated his points of liberty, inclusion, social justice and “faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace.”
The speech touched on a litany of issues dividing the country, from dealing with immigrants and the family to caring for the environment. The pope told the crowded House of Representatives, “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
The white cassock of Pope Francis stood out among the sea of dark suits worn by the political leaders. It was the first time a pope had spoken to Congress, where some 30 percent of the elected leaders belong to the church. Six of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholic.
Emory University’s lecture hall later that day was full for a rebroadcast of the speech, which was projected onto a large screen. Viewers followed along with copies of the text, underlining sections for emphasis. Others scribbled thoughts in notebooks to remember key passages. The room broke into applause at the end.
“Everyone has their take on it. I want to read it for myself,” said John Prevost, 62.
“Pope Francis is such a different type of pope. The church is going back to its roots, for the poor and mercy,” said Prevost, a member of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta, who arrived to the discussion early. “In the midst of all the policy and the teaching of the church, you can be compassionate. That’s his emphasis.”
Panel: Pope skillfully draws on history, heroes
An ethicist, a political scientist, and a theologian gave their thoughts about the speech at the gathering hosted by the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory.
Cory Labrecque, the director of the Graduate Bioethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics, told the crowd how the pope followed the road map from the Second Vatican Council. He said the pope highlighted how people “are not bereft of dignity” whether they are on death row or are immigrants to this country. He said the pope made it clear the American “destiny is intertwined” with the poor. He said Pope Francis used the four Americans skillfully to highlight cultural heroes “beatified by our very own people” to inspire the country.
Marquardt admitted she wept watching the speech. The pope talked about “hope and dialogue” between factions, said Marquardt, a scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology who has written about religion and Latino immigrants.
The pope opened his speech with the patriotic words, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” For Marquardt, the introduction was significant. The pope used the country’s own vision of itself to call its people to live up to the country’s ideals, she said. His point is “Don’t forget that is what you call yourself,” she told the audience.
The speech wasn’t a lecture, but it “built upon the strength and promise” of our country, she said. His use of the “Golden Rule” broke through political disputes. “Invoking the Golden Rule, who cannot get on board with that?” she said.
Political scientist Alan Abramowicz looked at the remarks through the lens of politics. The speech is at a time of almost unprecedented partisan division, he said. He noted the contrast of the pope’s speech with the words being spoken in the presidential race. He called it “Donald Trump v. the Pope.”
An issue for politics isn’t just that people disagree but that they dislike the other side.
“When you don’t trust the other side or don’t trust their intentions” the gridlock gets worse, said Abramowicz, a professor of political science at Emory.
The pope talked about the importance of working together, but it’s a huge challenge considering the divide, he said. The pope’s vision is important to move people beyond boundaries, but Abramowicz said he isn’t optimistic.
Among the audience were students from the Emory Catholic Student Union, 20-somethings and retired people.
Theresa Johnson teaches theology at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta. She filled pages of a notebook with key terms and words in well-written script. She said young people and others relate to the pope because he is “simple, direct and relational.”
She said the pope is reemphasizing the “seamless garment of life.”
“We don’t pick or choose,” Johnson said. “We aren’t meant to be torn. We are really meant to be one global family.”
Blake Mayes, who works for a philanthropic organization, said Pope Francis seems to have reenergized the papacy.
“It almost feels like a friend talking to you, like a communication from the heart,” said the 24-year-old.
His message to the church illustrates the adage attributed to St. Francis, “preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” And his actions may make him the person who can cut through divisions, Mayes said.
Lori Bell, a member of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Atlanta who works in staff recruiting, said the pope’s call for inclusion is important to her.
“It compels people to unity,” she said.