BY ISN STAFF | September 24, 2020
Five years ago, on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis made history as the first pope to address a joint meeting of U.S. Congress.
His remarks continue to bring relevance five years later, four years into a different U.S. presidency, in a time marked by reckoning with the realities of the legacy of racial injustice, a global migration crisis, and environmental crises, as well as a global pandemic. His words still ring as aspirational—telling Americans who we should be, even if it is not who we consistently are—people who approach the world with a spirit of cooperation, people of hope, healing, peace, and justice. He spoke of the challenges faced by the world, insisting that “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.”
He called upon the legacies of key American figures—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton–to illustrate the call to build a society through work for justice and faith that sows the seeds of peace; a society in which the oppressed and most vulnerable are met with care and compassion.
Tens of thousands of people watched the speech on screens from the Capitol’s West Lawn. After his speech, the pope made a brief appearance on the speaker’s balcony.
Fr. Stephen Privett, S.J. current president of Verbum Dei High School and president emeritus at University of San Francisco, was a guest of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on the West Lawn. He shared this reflection from the day: “Whether because of Pope Francis or the tenor of those times, it was a different United States. Pope Francis in speaking to Congress drew deeply from the best of our tradition: Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King. I looked up at the balcony on the West side of the Capitol to see the smiling faces of John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi (whose guest I was), Vice President Biden, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid. The Pope’s warm “buenos dias” met with wildly enthusiastic cheers from the crowd, as did his blessing of all, including ‘those who do not believe.’ This was the Pontifex Maximus, bridge builder, taking down all that divides us and bringing us together. My memories of that day are bittersweet and leave me longing for a leader who heals divisions, offers hope, challenges us to live our high ideals and is applauded by people of every race, language, and way of life.”
On the day of the address, nearly 40,000 members of the Ignatian family convened for watch parties through ISN’s Pope2Congress campaign. Nearly 350 parties were registered in thirty-five states across the U.S. and as far away as Rome, Italy.Many watch party attendees participated in group discussions immediately following about the implications of the Pope’s address, particularly related to climate change and immigration. More than 5,500 tweets and hundreds more Instagram and Facebook posts used #Pope2Congress to communicate reactions and share photos of Pope2Congress watch parties throughout the day.
Sarah Signorino, then a campus minister and now director of mission and identity, both at Canisius College, hosted a watch party. “The Pope2Congress Watch Party provided our campus with the opportunity to engage our Catholic, Jesuit ideas in real-time with Pope Francis’s address to Congress,” she shared.
“The Pope’s message invited both political reform and the reform of our own hearts so both can provide a true welcome to those most on the margins,” said Signorino. “It was both moving and challenging to hear a clear path to putting our faith into action.”
“Whether you were at the U.S. Capitol that day or watching with classmates or parishioners, it is hard to forget the historic nature of our Pope addressing the elected representatives of our federal government,” said Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, who was on the Capitol lawn that morning. “I was amazed by the energy of the crowd and the way they responded to every sentence Pope Franis offered, particularly as he highlighted the impacts of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.”