Pope Francis will become the first pontiff to address the U.S. Congress this fall on his visit to Washington. House Speaker John Boehner revealed on Thursday that the Pope has accepted an invitation extended in March of last year to speak before members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. His visit was planned early last year to attend a Catholic Church Congress in Philadelphia. While he is in the country, the Pope will also address the United Nations in New York.
Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to visit the United States. Paul VI became the first with a 1965 visit, which included an appeal for peace at the United Nations at the height of the Vietnam War. Since then, Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington in 2008 and met with President Bush. However, no other Pope has ever spoken directly to Congress.
Boehner’s announcement came moments after he highlighted the stalemate occurring in Congress over topics ranging from immigration to a Canada-U.S. oil pipeline. Congress has been feuding since reconvening in January, and Democrats and Republicans alike hope that Pope Francis can help to bring peace between the parties.
Pope Francis intends to use his trip to the United States this year to encourage world leaders to increase efforts to slow climate change. He has made an effort throughout his papacy to help immigrants, and has called on wealthy nations to do more to help the poor. These views may not be popular with all members of Congress. The Pope has also been willing to publicly call on leaders to follow his values. These goals may affect how his words are received by Congress later this year.
While the Argentinian Pontiff has some opinions, which are unpopular with many Americans, his popularity both in the United States and around the world remains high. Members of Congress, 31 percent of whom are Catholic, are delighted and honored that he has chosen to share his insight with them. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he is eagerly anticipating the Pope’s address, while Senior Senate Democrat Dick Durbin believes that “his words are certain to enrich and enlighten.”
The response of both the U.S. Congress and the President to Pope Francis’ address this fall is entirely different to the last time Boehner issued an invitation to a world leader to speak to Congress. The House Speaker invited Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to speak in Washington on March 3 about Iran just two weeks before Netanyahu begins his re-election campaign. This invitation was issued without consent from the President Obama, who, along with congressional Democrats, was displeased with Boehner.
On the Pope’s upcoming visit, the President is much more accepting. At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Obama said that he has “been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.”
Pope Francis’ historic address to the U.S. Congress this fall is also eagerly anticipated by the Archdiocese of Washington. Already his acceptance of the invitation has brought many people together who have been having a very difficult time agreeing on issues. Members of Congress hope that the Pope’s address will encourage a new sense of unity among them.
By Kirstin Pinto