WASHINGTON (AP) — Pope Francis summoned U.S. lawmakers Thursday to defend and preserve the dignity of all Americans, introducing himself as "a son of this great continent" as he became the first pontiff in history to address a joint meeting of Congress.
Entering a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, and lawmakers of both parties, Francis united the often-warring factions before he opened his mouth as the crowd stood to deliver a standing ovation. The sergeant at arms intoned "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See," and Francis made his way up the center aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as lawmakers applauded enthusiastically, some inclining their heads in bows.
The Argentine pope spoke from the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches. Behind him sat Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics.
"Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility," Francis said in his opening remarks. "Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation."
"Legislative activity is always based on care for the people," Francis said. "To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you."
Lawmakers of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations eagerly welcomed the pope, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them and hear him out. Outside, tens of thousands of spectators gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol and beyond, and many more were watching on TV around the world.
Security was tight outside the building with streets around the Capitol blocked off and a heavy police presence that rivaled an Inauguration or State of the Union address by the U.S. president. The scene on the West Lawn of the Capitol was festive but orderly, as thousands awaited the pope's appearance on the House Speaker's Balcony after his speech to Congress.
Libby Miller of Frederick, Maryland, said her friends all told her she was crazy for going to Capitol Hill with her 4-year-old son, Camden, and 2-year-old daughter, Avery. Miller, armed with toys, snacks and a sippy cup, found a spot on the Capitol lawn and said she wanted her kids to be there for an important moment in history. They won't understand it now, she said, but "they'll get it eventually."
Ahead of Francis' remarks lawmakers of both parties had busily sought political advantage from his stances, with Democrats in particular delighting in his support for action to overhaul immigration laws and combat global warming and income inequality. One House Republican back-bencher announced plans to boycott the speech over Francis' activist position on climate change, which the pontiff renewed alongside President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
But Boehner, a Republican and a former altar boy who invited the pope to speak after trying unsuccessfully to lure the two previous pontiffs to the Capitol, has dismissed concerns that the politically engaged Francis will stir the controversies of the day.
"The pope transcends all of this," said Boehner, who met on his own with Francis before the speech. "He appeals to our better angels and brings us back to our daily obligations. The best thing we can all do is listen, open our hearts to his message and reflect on his example."
The Senate's Republican leader welcomed the pope Thursday morning with an up-to-the-minute video that included images from Wednesday's parade.
"Americans have watched the pope reach new and different audiences, both from within his flock and far beyond it," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
For Congress, the pope was arriving at a moment of particular turmoil: A partial government shutdown looms next week unless lawmakers can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group's practices providing fetal tissue for research. Boehner himself is facing a brewing revolt from tea party members who've threatened to force a floor vote on whether he can keep his job.
Francis was certain to steer clear of such controversies, though the church's opposition to abortion could bolster Republicans in their efforts against Planned Parenthood. For members of Congress, his visit may prove little more than a brief respite from their partisan warfare, offering moments of unusual solemnity, uplift and pomp, but without fundamentally shifting the intractable gears of the U.S. political system.
Indeed there's little sign on Capitol Hill of significant action on the social justice issues dear to Francis' heart. But on Wednesday the pope said simply that in addressing Congress "I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles."
Francis enjoys approval ratings the envy of any U.S. politician as he's remade the image of the Catholic Church toward openness and compassion, yet without changing fundamental church doctrine. Addressing a chamber full of elected officials Thursday, he may be the most adept politician in the room.
After speaking in the House chamber Francis was to stop by the Capitol's Statuary Hall and its statue of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century missionary whom Francis elevated to sainthood Wednesday in the first canonization on U.S. soil.
Later, he planned to stop at St. Patrick's Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.
For Francis, it's been a whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on his three-city U.S. tour.
On Wednesday he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House, paraded around the Ellipse and spoke to U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Francis emphasized one of the defining messages of his papacy, to focus less on defending church teaching and more on compassion. The pope told the American church leaders that "harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor," and he encouraged them to speak with anyone.
In his first comments in the U.S. on the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002, the pope praised the bishops for a "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" and for acting "without fear of self-criticism."
An organization for abuse victims quickly disagreed.
"Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now," said Barbara Dorris, president of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.