On September 24, Pope Francis made history as the first Pontiff ever to address a joint session of the United States Congress. Far beyond the immediate audience of Senators and Representatives, his inspiring words of “hope and healing, of peace and justice” were a message to the world.
As a Catholic, it was a great honor to be part of the official escort committee that accompanied Pope Francis into the House chamber. The standing ovation and cheers that greeted his entry were overwhelming.
For this historic event, each Senator received one ticket for a single guest inside the gallery to listen to the Pope’s address. I was grateful to be joined in Washington by my mother, Pat Collins, who has served the Church throughout her life as the former director of religious education at Holy Rosary parish in our hometown of Caribou, as the previous head of the Catholic Charities of Maine Board, and as a past lay representative to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She was thrilled at the opportunity, and it was delightful to see her seated in the House gallery.
Pope Francis began his remarks by speaking directly to the members of Congress. He reminded us of our responsibility to our nation, saying, “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.” His call for a renewal of the spirit of cooperation I hope will inspire members of Congress and the President to work together to address our problems at home and the crises overseas.
In a room filled with high-ranking government leaders, Pope Francis stressed that the real strength of our nation lies in those we serve. In particular, he cited the countless men and women who work hard every day to support their families and to offer a helping hand to those in need; the retirees who use their wisdom and experience as community volunteers; and the young people who, despite the many temptations and distractions modern society offers, remain focused on their noble aspirations.
As the leader of a faith that traces its roots back more than 2,000 years, the Pope then focused on four Americans from our history who helped to build a better future for our nation and its people.
Two are names known to all. Abraham Lincoln, whom Pope Francis called, “the guardian of liberty,” demonstrated that “building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who devoted his life to pursuing the dream of full civil rights for all. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of `dreams,’ Pope Francis said. “Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
Two names are not as well-known, but are significant. Dorothy Day, honored by the Church as a Servant of God, had a “passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed” that should inspire all of us to fight against the poverty and hunger that afflict the less fortunate, here and around the world. The Cistercian Monk Thomas Merton freed himself from the prison of his own making to become a revered promoter of peace among the world’s peoples and religions.
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis said, are not just four remarkable individuals who happened to be Americans. Rather, they are “four representatives of the American people” who are part of our cultural heritage, of our nation’s spirit.
Pope Francis concluded his address with this challenge: “It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
Throughout his papacy and at every stop during his visit to America, Pope Francis has delivered a powerful message of inclusiveness, forgiveness, mercy, and love. He has emphasized our obligation to care for one another and for our planet. It is a message that should call all of us entrusted with public service to remember why we are here; that our efforts should not be for personal aggrandizement, but to do what is best for our country.