Locals react to Pope’s address to Congress

Categories: Around the Diocese,Papal visit

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Students gather Sept. 24 at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville to watch Pope Francis address the Special Joint Session of the U.S. Congress.

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Before dawn on Sept. 24, spectators gathered at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where Pope Francis spoke to a crowd of tens of thousands who were both inside and outside the Special Joint Session of the U.S. Congress.

College of St. Benedict president Mary Hinton, who was invited by U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn), knew it was going to be special, she said.

Hinton, who watched on a big screen from the West Lawn, noted three things in his address that particularly caught her attention. First, she said, was his delivery of the message. “His speech was so pastoral. He spoke with such spirit. But at the same time, he educated us and brought our past to the present. The totality of his message was wonderful.”

Hinton is referring to the Holy Father’s mention of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, who Pope Francis identified as “three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams.”

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton,” the pope said.

Second on her list, Hinton said, was watching Pope Francis exit the embassy. “As he exited, there was a group of school children standing there. He stopped and spoke to every one of those children. To see the hope and light in their eyes was amazing. The way he was engaging the children spoke to the idea of hope that he kept coming back to in his address and the importance of children.”

“I am so grateful for your welcome and your presence here, especially for the most important ones here — the children,” Pope Francis said from the West Portico of the capitol following the address, “I will ask God to bless you.’ Lord, father of all, bless this people, bless each one of them, bless their families, give them what they need most. And I ask you all please to pray for me. And if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way. Thank you. Thank you very much. And God bless America.”

For Hinton, the icing on the cake was just being part of the crowd. “Now days, we see something online and think that is the experience. For me today, it highlighted the value of having a shared experience, with a wonderfully diverse group. The entire spectrum of political and religious were represented and we all shared in hearing a message about the common good, peace and justice, loving our neighbors and the Golden Rule. For that speech, 50,000 people came together as one.”

Hinton says that she wants to bring that feeling back with her to the College of St. Benedict. “We already do a good job of having shared experiences but this experience for me highlighted its importance. We will look for new ways to expand on our heritage, our Benedictine values and dwell in community.”

Father Tim Wenzel was a special guest of U.S. Rep. Richard Nolan (D-Minn) inside the congressional chambers during the Pope’s address.

“It made me feel good to be Catholic, to see that respect and reverence that everyone has for our Holy Father. That was a very moving experience,” he said.

Father Wenzel was impressed by Pope Francis’ message but even more by his presence. “His presence exudes joy, he has a way of lifting people up. People also responded to his simplicity, his authenticity. He has a good message but his most powerful message is his example and the way he lives out his life.”

He appreciated the Holy Father’s emphasis on the Golden Rule — treat others as you wish to be treated — and specifically referenced the rule in light of the issue of immigration.

In his speech, Pope Francis gave strong support to several concerns of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic faithful, including defending the right of people to publicly live their faith and join political policy debates from a faith-based perspective.

“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,” he said. The dialogue the country needs must be respectful of “our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

“Every life is sacred,” he insisted, calling for the “global abolition of the death penalty” and the “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

Father Wenzel said he will be reflecting on his experience in Washington in the days and weeks to come. “All of these are very important issues for us as priests to talk about in our homilies and to practice personally, to live out in our daily lives,” he said. “The most important point is the pope’s personal witness of living a simple life, being joyful and being present to the people. He is a good example of Christ’s presence on earth.”

From his seat inside the congressional chambers, Father Wenzel said he could see Bishop Donald Kettler, who sat with the other U.S. bishops. Bishop Kettler said Pope Francis repeated some of the messages in his address to Congress that he presented in his message yesterday to the bishops: including the call for dialogue and working together.

“I hope this has a good impact into the future. It’s important for our congressional representatives and legislators to talk to each other and work together. They don’t always have to agree with one another, but there needs to be an openness to discussion. This is what Pope Francis called for. He is not a politician; this flows from his relationship with God.”

Joseph Schwieters, a Melrose native and a senior at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville, loves Pope Francis and watched the address with his fellow classmates.

“I love the direction he is going as well as his emphasis on hospitality, modesty and humbleness. As a pope, he is a lot more relatable to people with everyday worries and needs,” he said.

Schwieters appreciated the pope’s emphasis on the Golden Rule. “I think it’s very applicable as far as immigration goes. Pope Francis said that, at one point, we were all foreigners and in order to expand as a country and emphasize hospitality as we do here [at the prep school], it is very important to welcome other people in.”

Schwieters said he will take this message out into the world by “doing unto others as you would have done to you” in everyday situations. “I think it is very important for us to keep that mindset, not necessarily on a political scale, but just on an everyday scale by being compassionate human beings.”

He also appreciated the Holy Father’s comments on the environment. “Business is a noble vocation” when it seeks the common good, Pope Francis said. And today, he told legislators, the common good includes protecting the environment and taking bold steps “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”

“If we take care of nature, the earth, it will take care of us,” Schwieters said. “That needs to be the mindset going out because its not going to last if we keep doing what we’re doing. That needs to motivate us to change what we’re doing.”

To read the full text of Pope Francis’ address, click here. Catholic News Service contributed to this story.