By Bishop Edward J. Burns
When Pope Francis made his pastoral visit to the United States, his schedule was filled with opportunities to meet with the faithful, the poor, the clergy, religious and seminarians, and those involved in political life. There were many historic moments during his trip and one in particular occurred on Thursday, September 24, 2015 when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. It was the first time in the history of the United States that a pope had addressed this group of legislators.
As the “eyes of the nation” were upon our Holy Father, the successor of St. Peter, he was led to the Chambers of the House of Representatives to give his address. His visit there prompts us to remember that the Capitol Building possesses tributes to members of our Catholic community who have been instrumental in the establishment of our country.
In Statuary Hall, there are four priests, one nun and one Catholic layman. As you know, each state in the country has two statues of those who played an important part in the development of their state or commonwealth. Representing the state of Arizona is a statue of Father Eusebio Kino, SJ. He was a Spanish Jesuit priest who explored and mapped the southwest region of our country. Father Jacques Marquette was a French Jesuit who came from the north and discovered the Mississippi River. His statue is offered on behalf of the state of Wisconsin. California has a statue of Saint Junipero Serra who was canonized during this recent visit by Pope Francis. The state of Hawaii has a statue of Saint Damien who served for years on the island of Molokai and ministered to those with leprosy. The state of Washington has a statue of Mother Joseph, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Providence who helped build the infrastructure of schools, hospitals, orphanages and social agencies. The state of Maryland has a statue of Charles Carroll who was prevented from practicing law because he was a Catholic. He wrote political commentaries under a pseudonym and was later given the privilege of signing the Declaration of Independence.
In the Chamber of the House of Representatives where Pope Francis gave his address, the walls possess relief portrait plaques of key lawgivers throughout the history of human beings. Among them are two popes and one saint. On the walls among the other lawgivers are Pope Gregory IX and Pope Innocent III. Both of them are recognized for their work in canon law. Saint Louis of France is also represented in the House of Representatives for his work in establishing the laws of his country and achieving the common good that effectively reached out to the poor and those in need. All the lawmakers represented on these marble reliefs in the house chambers face one major prominent figure – Moses. Moses is identified as the supreme lawgiver to whom all other lawmakers look. This architectural style is set to remind the lawmakers present that they, too, are called to look to Moses. It was impressive that Pope Francis began his address pointing to the main figure in the hall, Moses, and saying to the legislators who gathered, “Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
After Pope Francis concluded his historic address to the joint session of Congress, he proceeded through Statuary Hall on his way to the Speaker’s Balcony of the Capitol Building. As all the major networks were watching, Pope Francis led the entourage to the statue of Saint Junipero Serra, the Church’s newest Saint, and paused for prayer. Many of you may be aware that the legislators of California have initiated legislation to remove the statue of Saint Junipero Serra. It is my hope that the Holy Father’s visit to this statue will help maintain St. Junipero Serra’s presence in our Capitol Building.
After that moment of prayer, Pope Francis proceeded to the Speaker’s Balcony of the US Capitol building. As he walked out onto the balcony, he was met by thousands of people cheering and applauding.
In the past I have only experienced presidents speaking from that balcony of the Capitol Building, but this moment of our Holy Father being warmly received truly suggested his role as universal shepherd. It is also inspiring to know that his historic visit to our country adds to the important contribution that our Catholic faith has had in improving our society. It is my prayer that we are able to continue the work of the Church in society and fulfill the Church’s mission of bringing forth the common good for all people.