Tara Johnson doesn’t seem like the type to tear up easily, but Pope Francis’ gentle delivery of provocative challenges to Congress got her ducts working.
“I’m gonna start crying,” the La Crosse County Board chairwoman said after watching the pontiff during the Pope2Congress Watch Party Thursday at St. Rose Convent in La Crosse.
“For me as a person to be in this space with the FSPAs to hear this message is very meaningful,” Johnson said. “He didn’t really pussyfoot around issues.”
The 79-year-old pope received nearly 25 ovations — several of them standing — in the first papal address to joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., which took place on the third day of his six-day visit to the U.S.
During his 3,500-word speech in halting English, he pressed the lawmakers to embrace immigrants; reject military escalation and its resultant “blood money;” promote life at all stages, including abolishing the death penalty; champion family values; renounce extreme fundamentalism of any kind; safeguard the globe against environmental destruction, including that inflicted by humans; and defend the rights of all to exercise their religious beliefs.
“He was very direct in his messages to elected officials, which I take to heart,” Johnson said.
A Protestant raised in the Methodist tradition, Johnson said, “I think it’s such a universal message for all of us.”
Johnson was among more than 100 people who watched the papal speech on a big-screen TV at the party. Participants included members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, staffers of the Franciscan Spirituality Center and community members ranging from common folks to corporate leaders. The FSPAs and the FSC sponsored the event in conjunction with other P2C gatherings that drew 30,000 people throughout the country.
During a discussion period after the address, several participants marveled at the Jesuit pope’s deft ability to take the Senate and the House to the woodshed without smacking them upside the head.
Several contrasted his fatherly tone to that of the controversial smackdown that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to a joint session in March.
“He treated Congress with dignity and didn’t beat them up,” said Deborah Hansen, the FSC’s program and retreat coordinator.
The pope raised issues such as abortion and gay marriage without being strident and, actually, without even using those words.
At the same time, he made it clear that universal moral standards should guide legislators’ deliberations on immigration, inclusivity, economic imbalance, peace over war and other issues on which they are sharply divided — including dialogue to bridge that frequently abrasive chasm.
Obviously well schooled on his surroundings and the U.S., the pope referred to an etching of Moses on the chamber walls to illustrate some points. He cited the examples of Abraham Lincoln as an advocate for liberty, Martin Luther King Jr. as a standard-bearer for liberty and justice, Dorothy Day as a pillar of social justice and Trappist monk Thomas Merton as a model of dialogue and openness to God.
Those four Americans underscore the needs for peace, social justice, reversing poverty, distributing wealth equitably, caring for the disenfranchised, creating jobs, preserving the environment and stemming the tide of war, he told the legislators, Cabinet members, military leaders, Supreme Court justices and invited guests.
In one breath, he underscored the necessity to protect life at all stages, drawing applause in the House chamber, and in the next, he called for the global abolition of the death penalty. The shift stopped some legislators in mid-clap, while it evoked gasps of surprise, followed by shouts and applause of approval from the audience in the convent basement.
“He was masterful,” said Steve Spilde, the FSC’s associate director/spiritual director. He was talking about the value of life, and they (lawmakers and guests) leaped to their feet, (and) then he went right into the death penalty,” catching advocates of capital punishment off guard.
Pope Francis urged rehabilitation rather than execution.
Spilde also praised the pope's reflection of the Franciscan spirituality of his namesake in exhorting, "If we want security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities."
FSPA Sister Georgia Christensen expressed admiration of the pope for urging the country to welcome immigrants without reserve.
"We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners," the pontiff had said, adding, “I say this to you as the son of an immigrant.”
CSPAN cameras adroitly highlighted specific audience members at timely moments, such as focusing on Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio at that instant, capturing tears forming in the eyes of the son of Cuban immigrants.
"Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War," the pope said.
“When the pope said not being afraid to welcome people, all I could think of was Donald Trump” and his disparagement of immigrants during his campaign for the GOP nomination for president, Christensen said.
Similarly, CSPAN focused on two stone-faced military officers when the pope deplored war and said, "Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money, money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade."
When the pope insisted that people respect family values, “I noted that he didn’t tell us what kind of people make up the family,” Christensen said. “He talked about faith but didn’t say what faith.”
Correspondingly, he addressed climate change with neither those buzz words nor the term “global warming” that inflames so many on the right.
Rather, he mentioned “Laudato Si,” his controversial encyclical on the environment, and said, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps,’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference -- I’m sure.
“And I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,” Francis said.
Pope2Congress Party participants were particularly impressed that the pope eschewed the opportunity to have lunch with members of Congress, instead meeting and eating with a group of homeless people.
Overall, FSC director Audrey Quanrud, who moderated the discussion after the papal address, said, “Rather than chastisement, it felt like encouragement to be our best selves.”