Yes, a first: the first time a pope has addressed a joint session of the US Congress, and the first time I got up at 6 am to watch him doing it.
In my view (full disclosure: I’m a fan) the speech was brilliant–comprehensive, balanced, challenging, affirming of the US both in its greatness and its woundedness.
He got off to a great start by saying that he was glad to be in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”–massive applause. In this and a number of other ways he tapped into the American mythos, the sense of their nation with which Americans (think of the little kids with their hands on their hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance) are imbued from the beginning of their lives. Later he quoted Lincoln, who prayed (not too strong a word) that “this nation, under God, might have a new birth of freedom.” Then came a reference to the Golden Rule–again, massive applause. And he ended with “God bless America!” I suspect that he had some help with the writing of his speech from American Catholics, who would be sensitive to the effect of these phrases, which speak powerfully to the American heart.
He made his speech particularly memorable by channelling much of what he wanted to say through the contributions of four notable Americans. Two of these everyone would know: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. The other two, both Roman Catholics, are less well known: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Lincoln he presented as an icon of liberty; MLK Jr as representing the struggle for plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, for her concern for social justice and human rights; and Thomas Merton in relation to his practice of interfaith dialogue and openness to God.
He also made some comments which in terms of present-day American politics have an edge to them. He encouraged his hearers not to be fearful of foreigners, i.e., immigrants: “because most of us were once foreigners.” He countered the criticism he has received from the Native American community because of his canonization of Junipero Serra, regarded by many Native Americans as responsible for a quasi-genocide in 18th-century California, by expressing regret that their rights were not respected by the settlers, and offering them his “highest esteem and appreciation.” He spoke against fundamentalism and polarization, both of which in various ways have characterized the deadlock in recent years in Congress itself. His comments on the need to “raise people out of extreme poverty” would have been heard by some as an unwelcome stricture on capitalism, with its Darwinian ethic of the survival of the fittest or the smartest or the wealthiest.
Perhaps his most concrete assertion concerned the abolition of the death penalty. He told his hearers that he had been working towards this for many years; and he cited the decision of the American Roman Catholic bishops in their call for abolition.
Two elements in his speech might have generated some wonderings. What did he mean by “subsidiarity”? This is a term which came into use at the time of the Second Vatican Council. There it meant that everything should be dealt with at the lowest, most local level possible. For a highly-centralized church like his own, this began a process, still incomplete, to shift responsibility from the centre to the grassroots: the application of this concept to politics is obvious.
He also spoke of “this continent,” by which he meant the Americas as a whole, South, Central and North, considered as one entity. So in his opening paragraph he spoke of himself as “a son of this great continent.” We all know he was born in Argentina, not in North America. We in North America think of South America as a different continent; but it is apparent from his phasing that he as a Latin American does not. The Americas are one, a point also made by Thomas Merton.
I wondered if he would speak about nuclear weapons, but he didn’t. He did speak about the viciousness of the arms race–“drenched in innocent blood”–and one commentator noted that he received no applause for this statement. I now think he is saving what he will say about nuclear weapons for his talk to the UN tomorrow.