It was difficult to ignore the excitement surrounding Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, as seemingly every news outlet – both local and national – spent the entire week covering his visit.
Fellow Alaska Wilderness League staff and I were fortunate enough to receive tickets to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the Pope’s address to a joint session of Congress – this would enable us to watch his address on several jumbo screens set up outside the building, and afterwards we would be able to see him on the Capitol balcony as he addressed the crowd in person.
We were awake before sunrise to wait in line, then finally found our spot and subsequently parked ourselves on the lawn for another four hours. Sitting nearby was a priest traveling from his parish in Florida. He joined in our conversation as we chatted with a local family living in DC, the dad hailing originally from Louisiana. We shared little known facts on the history of Washington, DC, and compared the best and worst seasons in our respective hometowns. I complained about the horrible DC summers, which seem brutal to me as someone that grew up in the Midwest. The man from Louisiana laughed – the muggy summers of DC nothing when compared to those in the “real south.” The priest shared his Lindt chocolates with all of us, a much needed treat at 7:30am. You can become very close with those you share small spaces with for several hours.
As 9:00am approached, the crowd’s mood began to change; everyone began to perk up and shake off their early morning haze. We knew Pope Francis was on his way. The jumbo screens streamed video of Pope Francis leaving the Vatican Embassy, and even then the crowd began to cheer and clap. The excitement and noise grew exponentially as he made his way to Capitol Hill.
After meeting with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), it was time. Pope Francis began his address to Congress, his message focused on cooperation and compassion in all parts of life. He made a direct call to Americans to work on stopping climate change and talked about the role humans have taken in this crisis. He charged all Americans to be mindful of the natural world as our common home. The Pope also talked about how all business can be conducted to be successful, but consideration needs to be taken to include the effects on our Earth into the externalities of business. And he encouraged all Americans to use technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
The hopefulness of the Pope’s message and his belief in the power and ingenuity of America’s institutions to help solve our climate issues is what resonated with me the most. He acknowledged our power and influence in the world, and as a country challenged us with being better as a leader. He tapped into our patriotism and national pride using phrases like “land of the free and home of the brave” and “God Bless America” at the close of his address. His confidence in America’s ability to lead the fight against climate change was inspiring: “I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead,” he said.
The most beautiful thing about Pope Francis’ address was how emotion took over almost everyone in the crowd, including myself. We were surrounded by a group a teenagers that took an overnight bus up from Nashville just to make it in time for the address, and one young man in particular became overcome with emotion during Pope Francis’ message for compassion to all immigrants. For a woman from Indianapolis, it was his evoking of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dream of equality of all persons. For me it was simply in seeing His Holiness in person for the first time as he stepped out onto the balcony. The joy on his face to see all of us there – especially the children – and his request that we pray for him. The beauty found in the thousands of people gathered together, from different places, different backgrounds and different viewpoints, sharing in the hope that we are capable of making our world a better place and treating each other and our common home with respect and compassion.
Pope Francis’ words transcend beyond religious affiliation, his message of compassion resonating across all traditional boundaries. For me, I’m excited to take that message and use it not only in my personal life but in my daily work at Alaska Wilderness League. I am hopeful of a future where a message of humility and respect for our planet and its inhabitants, is the loudest.
Photos: Alaska Wilderness League