Pope urges Congress to abolish death penalty, embrace immigrants

WASHINGTON — Following his historic speech to Congress, Pope Francis jumped from the halls of power to the halls of the people at St. Patrick’s Church, where he met with the poor and the homeless.

In contrast to his stoic nods to members of Congress, the pope worked the crowd of Catholic Charities clients like a rock star shaking hands, taking photos, smiling and mingling. The fray began after his brief grace: “Bon apetito,” he said with a smile.

He was to have lunch with the hundreds of clients. But the meals were left on the table as they swarmed around the pope.

He prayed to find shelter for the homeless in a brief service at the church earlier and noted that Jesus was born homeless.

His message of love and mercy for the downtrodden was repeated earlier in his address to Congress when he called on the American people to not turn a blind eye to the plight of refugees and immigrants.

“Most of us were foreigners once,” he said to applause.

These newcomers want the same for their own families as Americans do: A better future, he said.

“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated … Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. 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 pontiff invoked the Golden Rule, which is among the hallmarks of Christian values, telling Congress to treat others as they would wish to be treated.

Francis pressed the issue of immigration and resettlement several times in his one-hour speech and noted how thousands in Central America travel north in search of a better life.

“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 called the current refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, as Syrians pour into Turkey, Serbia and Croatia to escape the civil war and look for economic opportunities, the worst since World War II.

Saying all lives are sacred, even those of criminals, he called to abolish the death penalty.

He said that all human life should be protected and defended at every stage of development, one of two references to abortion during his speech. He also celebrated the work of Dorothy Day, an activist who had an abortion as a young woman but who later advocated for the poor and working classes.

Francis announced earlier this month that rank-and-file priests would be able to grant absolution to women who’ve had an abortion.

Speaking about the environment, he urged Congress to combat climate change, which he says is caused by human activity.

“I’m convinced that we can make a difference … I have no doubt that the United States and this Congress have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous action.”

He urged Congress to help Americans pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty, but to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable and that uses the best of technology.

A lack of a clear future coupled with violence and abuse are preventing younger Americans from starting families — an institution along with marriage that Francis says is threatened. This was his lone reference to gay marriage.

In slow, but understandable English, Francis delivered a speech intended to encourage Congress to continue building on what has made this nation an inspiration for dreamers and to remind the members of their role to make decisions that are in the best interests for whom they are responsible.

It was the first time a pope has addressed Congress, but not the first for a head of a church, according to Speaker John Boehner’s office. The speaker has invited two previous pope’s to address the legislative body. Queen Elizabeth, head of the Church of England, has previously spoken before Congress.

Although the event had all the pomp of a State of the Union address, it did not generate the rollicking applause or standing ovations common of the annual political event.

The president’s cabinet and members of the U.S. Supreme Court attended. However President Obama did not make an appearance. Vice President Biden, who is Catholic, attended as the formal leader of the Senate.

Members of Congress also managed not to “embarrass” themselves by glad-handing or trying to hug the pontiff, allowing him to quickly make his way down the center aisle to the dais.

Later, an emotional Speaker John Boehner could be seen wiping tears from his eyes as Francis led the 50,000 people gathered on the West Front Lawn in prayer.

Those with tickets to watch the live broadcast on the lawn began arriving before dawn to get through security and pick a spot.

St. Patrick’s Church

Francis spoke to roughly 400 people at St. Patrick’s Church in Chinatown/Gallery Place, the smallest gathering during the D.C. leg of his trip to the U.S. He addressed parishioners, those served by Catholic Charities and choirs from two local high schools and called for charity and compassion toward the homeless and the least fortunate. And he said there is no social or moral justification for a lack of housing for the people.

Ramona Service of Washington was among those who have been served by Catholic Charities and were invited to hear the pope speak

Service received help from Catholic Charities with funeral expenses when her son died in April.

She says Francis spoke “from the heart” and calls him “a very giving, sensible pope.”

Sherrie May, 33, says the pope leaned over to kiss her 5-month-old daughter Rebecca on the head. Says May: “It was amazing.”

A bald and thinner Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was among those at the small event. The governor, who is battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma, received a blessing on behalf of all cancer patients.

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