WASHINGTON — New York lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed on one thing Thursday — to leave politics out of the mix and reflect on Pope Francis’ words during his historic speech before a joint session of Congress.
“People try to politicize the pope,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook. “That is really not what this day is about.”
Instead, Gibson said, it was about “lifting people up.”
After speaking on Capitol Hill, the pope headed to St. Patrick’s Church on the edge of downtown Washington where he met homeless people over lunch. That was Francis’ choice rather than dining with the governing class. “He’s following in Jesus’ footsteps,” Gibson said.
Around 50,000 people flocked to the Capitol, some sleeping on blankets in the early morning. They watched on giant screen TVs as the pope addressed U.S. lawmakers for the first time in history.
Some held signs aloft and chanted “Papa Francisco.”
But as soon as the pontiff stepped up to the podium, the jubilant chants from the massive lawn crowd outside subsided and the House chamber too fell silent. Only the subtle flashing noises of professional-grade cameras conflicted with the pope’s words.
It took only one line, the pope saying he was grateful to be in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” before lawmakers and the public massed at the West Front of the Capitol erupted in thunderous applause.
“He immediately connected with everyone in that chamber,” Rep. Gibson said.
Whether he is relating to cultural history or speaking the native tongue of a country, Pope Francis finds a way to connect with the public.
“He truly is a man of the people,” said the Rev. Donald Rutherford of New York, a former chief of chaplains and major general in the U.S. Army. “He has to speak the language of the people. The majority of the Congress speaks English, so he spoke English.”
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was especially taken by a reference to the late American writer, Merton, a Trappist monk. In his office, Tonko pulled a Merton quote from his Senate office desk, “Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.”
With slow, careful words and slight hand gestures, Pope Francis touched on and contextualized a number of key issues, including climate change, abortion, the death penalty, family life and immigration.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners,” the pontiff said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
Tonko, who brought Anthony Tersigni, president and CEO of Ascension, the world’s largest Catholic health care system, said the atmosphere around the Capitol was one of anticipation.
“A lot of people were hoping to hear certain things,” Tonko said, adding, “This is a spiritual leader.”
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Catholic and North Country Republican, said the pontiff has inspired a “sense of optimism across this country,” regardless of someone’s political stance. “Instead of playing politics, I think it is important to instead focus on this historic moment.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Pope Francis’ strong stance on the importance of family resonated.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement: the pope’s speech “was inspiring and uplifting to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He has such optimism in human nature and in the future, and is calling upon our better angels to achieve the best goodness we can for humankind.”
Pope Francis left the nation’s capital for a two-night stay in New York City, then heads to Philadelphia on Saturday.
Whether the pope’s message unifies the political parties is yet to be seen, but New York lawmakers were hopeful that the visit would bring about change.
“We have a lot of unfinished business … ” Tonko said. “He opened the door, and now we have to enter in.”