Pope Francis’ address makes an impact on Congress

East Tennessee delegation in attendance for first appearance ever by a pope before a joint session

By Bill Brewer

For six days in September, Pope Francis was the hottest ticket in Philadelphia, New York and Washington.

And for a congressional delegation living within the Diocese of Knoxville, the Holy Father’s address to a joint session of Congress was a can’t-miss event in D.C.

It was the first time in history that a pope has addressed Congress, and it was the Holy Father’s first visit to the United States — ever.

The five members of the delegation — Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Chattanooga; Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Maryville; Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Chattanooga Republican;

Rep. Phil Roe, a Johnson City Republican; and Rep. John Duncan Jr., a Republican from Knoxville — expressed appreciation for the pope’s appearance and his commitment to Christian values, but took away different thoughts on Francis’ remarks.

Rep. Fleischmann, the only Catholic in the delegation and one of 140 Catholics among 435 representatives in the House, was especially moved by the pope’s appearance.

“The papal visit to me was very special, not only theologically, but as the head of the Holy See,” he said. “The joint session was very well-attended, and the pope’s speech was very well-received.”

Response to key points in the Holy Father’s address varied among members of Congress, depending on the subject.

In his in-depth speech, the pope condemned legalized abortion, the death penalty, and unscrupulous weapons sales. He called on Congress to normalize relations with Cuba and pleaded for greater openness in accepting immigrants.

He reiterated his teachings on the world economy, calling for an ethical, controlled economy that includes safety nets for the poor, as well as his teachings on sustainability outlined in his encyclical Laudato Si.

The Holy Father’s focus on the family particularly resonated with Rep. Fleischmann.

“In our country, sadly so many of our families are torn apart by divorce and other issues. We should heed the Holy Father’s advice and strengthen families,” he said.

Fleischmann said that unlike his Mass homilies, Pope Francis’ speech to Congress was given as a head of state — the Holy See — and his remarks could be open to different interpretation among the elected officials.

“For different members, it meant something different. But for all our brothers and sisters of all faiths in Congress the message can be universally accepted.

He spoke to Democrats and Republicans alike, and it was generally well-received,” said the congressman, who first took office in 2011.

Rep. Fleischmann is hopeful the pope’s message will leave an imprint in Congress, across the country and around the world.

“If his endeavors can bring people back to the Church, he needs to be applauded for that, and I think (his message) will have that effect,” he said. “These values are eternal and need to be espoused.”

Reps. Fleischmann and Roe congratulated House Speaker John Boehner for his longtime efforts to have the head of state of the Holy See address a joint session of Congress.

The 20-year effort by Rep. Boehner, R-Ohio, finally proved successful.

The pope’s appearance also was an answered prayer for Father Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who is chaplain of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Roe, a Protestant, had been anxiously awaiting the pope’s appearance.

“As a lifelong Methodist, it was exciting for me, too. The joint session was really, really good,” he said. “I think when he said to be good stewards of the environment, that appeals to both sides of the aisle. His pro-life message also was well-received.”

Rep. Roe respected Pope Francis’ message and appreciated the Holy Father delivering his remarks in English, which he acknowledged was difficult since the pontiff’s native language is Spanish and he speaks Italian, French, German and Portuguese as well.

“He had to give a speech, not a sermon. I thought he threaded the needle very well,” the congressman said, noting that the pope touched on issues that prompted agreement and disagreement among the members of Congress.

Rep. Roe said the pope’s view on capitalism is shaped by his life in Argentina, where there are extreme levels of wealth and poverty.

“That’s the lens he views life from,” he said. “Capitalism has created more income and equality than any other economic system in the world.”

Rep. Roe also said he would have liked Pope Francis to highlight more of the characteristics that make the United States a great country. The congressman cited as examples two immigrants he recently met who had worked as hourly employees but learned their jobs well enough to open their own thriving businesses.

“I thought, where else can that happen,” he said, using his own background as an example. “I didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was 7. I was raised in a small, rural Middle Tennessee county.”

Rep. Roe, who is a physician and also served as mayor of Johnson City, acknowledged there was common ground among Democrats and Republicans in much of Pope Francis’ speech, but the pontiff’s comments on climate change and right to life were not common denominators. His stances on war and global violence were, however.

Washington — and Congress — were abuzz about the pope’s visit, which is rare for a city so accustomed to hosting heads of state.

“He’s a world leader of 69 million people in the United States. He was granted the respect that he has earned,” Rep. Roe said. “There was electricity in that room (House chamber), and I’ve been in that room many times for joint sessions. It was pretty neat. This lifelong Methodist was pretty excited.”

Like his colleagues in the House, Rep. Duncan was impressed by Pope Francis’ presence and agreed that his speech was well-received by both political parties.

“Having the pope here was a tremendous honor. I thought it was a real privilege to be in the House chamber when he spoke,” Rep. Duncan said. “The most wonderful part of his speech to me was when he began by saying he was glad to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

He also was inspired by Pope Francis’ call for people to live by the Golden Rule. “We need more human kindness from one another because everyone needs help at some point,” Rep. Duncan said.

Sen. Alexander was circumspect in his assessment of Pope Francis’ address to the joint session of Congress, saying only in a statement that “Pope Francis lives his life in a way that provides an extraordinary example of serving others. It has been an honor to help host his visit and to hear him.”

Sen. Corker found key elements in the pope’s speech to support, including the need to eliminate new global forms of slavery, an issue the senator has been working on, and the need for faith to continue to be an important voice in the country.

“It was an honor to welcome His Holiness Pope Francis to our nation’s capital and hear his historic address to Congress,” Sen. Corker said in a statement. “His address was one of hope and unity, and I was particularly pleased to hear his message about the fight to eliminate modern slavery. As Pope Francis conveyed, ending modern slavery will not come easy. It will require cooperation from people of all faiths, backgrounds, and nationality. But together, we can end it.”

During his address to Congress, Pope Francis said, “In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.

Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”

Senators and representatives were not the only ones to see and hear Pope Francis on Capitol Hill. The elected officials could each invite one guest to the joint session. Rep. Fleischmann invited Bruce Hartmann, who has been active in the Diocese of Knoxville as a parishioner at Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.

Rep. Duncan invited Knoxville lawyer Dennis Francis, a parishioner at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut.

Like Rep. Duncan, Mr. Hartmann, president of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, said the pope’s basic message to live by the Golden Rule resonated with him.

“It was very inspirational. It was very meaningful to me,” he said, adding that witnessing the pope address Congress was a “great experience.”

The newspaper publisher said Pope Francis’ appearance in Congress was unlike a presidential State of the Union address, which he has attended.

“He’s a phenomenal religious leader who is trying to do the right thing,” he said. “In the joint session with Pope Francis, there was an air of respect for him, and people really seemed to understand what he had to say.”

Mr. Francis was wowed by the pontiff.

“When Pope Francis came in, the whole place was electric. You could feel Christ’s presence in the pope,” he said. “It was overwhelming. It was an emotionally charged, spiritual setting. He radiated. He had that kind of impact. It was a message for everybody.”

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