WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis praised the United States as a land of liberty and opportunity, but also gently reprimanded the country, calling on lawmakers to abolish the death penalty, be more inclusive of immigrants, and do more to combat climate change.
In the first speech ever by a pope to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, the Roman Catholic pontiff on September 24 prompted an immediate standing ovation by opening his address with the quotation “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
He proceeded to discuss themes central to his papacy, including the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, immigration, and religious extremism.
"We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind," Francis said during a 50-minute speech in a packed chamber at the U.S. Capitol.
“A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology, or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and individual freedoms," he added.
Speaking in accented English, which Vatican observers say Francis practiced diligently ahead of his U.S. visit, the pope mentioned four Americans who he said embodied the country’s spirit, including Abraham Lincoln, the president who served during the U.S. Civil War, and Martin Luther King Jr., the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader of the 1960s.
Francis pushed lawmakers to do more to embrace immigrants, making a Biblical allusion to the “stranger in our midst” and invoking the immigrant past of most Americans.
“We the people are not fearful of foreigners because most of us were once foreign. I say this to you as a son of immigrants knowing that so many of you are also descendants of immigrants,” said Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina.
"We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation," he said.
Immigration reform has sharply divided Congress and become a polarizing issue in the presidential race, as lawmakers struggle to find some way to pass legislation on the issue.
The pope mentioned his push to see the death penalty abolished around the world. The United States, where 35 people were put to death in 2014, ranks high in the number of executions carried out among countries that still employ capital punishment.
He alluded briefly to the issue of abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes, garnering applause when he said "our responsibility [is] to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."
He also criticized the global arms trade -- the United States is the world's largest exporter of weapons -- and said more must be done to stop environmental destruction and slow the rise in global temperatures, which mainstream scientists attribute 7to human activity.
“We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” Francis said.
“I call for a courageous and responsible effort...to avert the most serious effects of the environment deterioration caused by human activity,” he continued. “I am convinced we can make a difference. I am sure.”
Francis spoke a day after receiving a formal state welcome by U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, which was followed by a drive around the National Mall, where tens of thousands waved, cheered, and photographed the pontiff. Later that day he presided over Mass at a Washington cathedral.
Speaking to both chambers of Congress is an opportunity accorded to relatively few dignitaries. The last foreign leader to speak to the chambers was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April.
Ahead of the speech, some lawmakers had indicated they would boycott the event. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, said Francis’s focus on climate change was wrong. It was not immediately clear if Gosar attended the event.
Several members of Obama's cabinet were in attendance, as were four members of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts.
Other conservative Supreme Court judges, including Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, both Catholics, stayed away.
The pope's six-day U.S. tour continues on September 25 with an address to the UN General Assembly in New York followed by a visit to Philadelphia on September 26-27.