Middlebury tunes into Pope’s historic speech

MIDDLEBURY — Close to 50 Addison County residents gathered in the Marquis Theater in Middlebury to watch a live simulcast of Pope Francis’ historic address to the U.S. Congress this past Thursday.
The local gathering to watch Francis, the first pope to address Congress, was sponsored by the interfaith Middlebury Area Clergy Association.
“We were thinking that this was going to be a point of discussion around the nation since he was addressing all of our representatives,” said the Rev. Barnaby Feder, minister at Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. “And the topics that we heard he was going to be touching on are things that are important in all of our faith traditions. We thought it was pretty clear he was going to be talking about the need for us to respond communally to our problems, so we thought in that spirit it would be nice to watch the speech communally and be able to just hear each other’s reactions.”
Some initial technical difficulty — so many people in the area were watching Pope Francis’ speech online that at first the group at the Marquis couldn’t get Internet access to the speech — sent some attendees scrambling to look for cable or radio access elsewhere. But most remained, to be able to watch the speech together and have the opportunities for dialogue afterward. Quipped one attendee, reflecting on the difficult global concerns the pope would be touching on, “It’s a nice metaphor, sitting here in the dark, seeing how it will all come out.”
The Internet connection came through just as the pope began speaking and attendees in unison leaned forward to parse every word in the Argentine-born pope’s heavily accented English.
Pope Francis began by linking himself to all U.S. citizens as “a son of this great continent” and praised the United States as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” He then sounded a theme that ran throughout his whole speech, which was Americans’ collective responsibility to uphold their own stated values as a nation.
Francis focused his speech around four great Americans who, for him, represented the best in American values: Abraham Lincoln and the love of freedom; Martin Luther King and the struggle to achieve full rights for all; the Catholic Worker Movement’s Dorothy Day and her work toward social justice, especially economic justice; and Cistercian monk, political activist and best-selling author Thomas Merton and the need for reflection and dialogue across differences.
Several at the Middlebury theater noted that Pope Francis’ approach to addressing Congress — to build consensus around values before confronting some of the world’s most powerful men and women with tough policy choices — is firmly rooted in the Jesuit tradition, which embraces a vow of poverty and a commitment to bringing faith to forgotten or oppressed peoples while speaking truth to power. Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi (noted for his work with the poor and his love of creation) and the first from outside of Europe.
Though speaking to Congress, Francis also directly addressed himself to ordinary working Americans, the elderly and, repeatedly, to young people.
His speech touched on a range of national and international issues, which alternately brought out rousing ovations or silence from one part of Congress or another:
• The dangers of religious and political extremism, both within and without; the need to battle new global forms of slavery.
• The importance of welcoming immigrants, both those seeking a better life and those fleeing the Middle East in what Francis called the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.
• The global abolition of the death penalty.
• The need to harness business and technology to create good jobs and distribute wealth fairly.
• The need to reverse global warming and protect the Earth by making “a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
• The need to engage perceived enemies with “openness and pragmatism.”
• The evil of arms sales, which he called “money that is drenched in blood.”
• The importance of protecting all children, especially those “trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
• The importance of the family.
Repeatedly Francis emphasized the dignity and worth of all people, the kind of courage it takes to act with justice and compassion and the importance of following the Golden Rule in both private and public affairs. To the lawmakers, Francis said, “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
And he encouraged all Americans to draw on “the richness of your cultural heritage … (and) the spirit of the American people” so that young people could “inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
The pope ended with “God bless America.”
In the 20-minute discussion that followed the pope’s speech, perhaps the most interesting and astute observation was made by St. Mary’s pastor, Father William Beaudin. He noted that for Pope Francis the message always goes beyond words to action and is implicit in his very schedule as he tours the United States. Beaudin pointed out that throughout his visit, Francis had alternated speaking to powerful persons with embracing the down and out. Part two of the pope’s speech to Congress, said Beaudin, is that he would immediately go and have lunch with the homeless in downtown D.C. Through these kinds of actions, Francis “shines a spotlight” on those issues he believes to be most important.
“He’s not staying around for cucumber sandwiches and champagne at the Congress,” said Beaudin. “He is going down immediately to St. Patrick’s, which is a facility run by Catholic charities, to spend lunch and time with those who are homeless and forsaken and forgotten. In doing that, he continues to drive home that point of what this cycle of poverty looks like — as he did yesterday in the White House Rose Garden — and he continues to take a spotlight and shine it very intensely, which forces a lot of people to confront difficult issues.”
Feder noted the importance the pope places on seeing “not numbers but persons,” as in his exhortation to apply the Golden Rule to issues surrounding immigration. The Rev. Daniel Cooperrider, pastor at the Weybridge Congregational Church, singled out Pope Francis’ emphasis on the “goodness of creation” and our responsibility to care for creation, especially in addressing climate change.
“If we’re making this mistake about our common home that Francis keeps talking about so beautifully,” said Cooperrider, “then that means we’ve made a theological mistake, which also means we’ve made a mistake about understanding life, understanding ourselves, understanding our relationship to others.” Cooperrider later followed up these concerns by encouraging everyone to attend the Oct. 3 Climate Revival on the Middlebury town green.
For other attendees the pope’s speech drew attention to the importance of dialogue that includes everyone, especially widening our circle of discussion to include folks whose opinions differ from our own; to the importance of finding solutions to global problems other than violence or combat; and the challenges of working for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than focusing solely on punishment. Another wondered about the Supreme Court justices who had chosen not to attend (only Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Bader Ginsburg and Sotomayor were among those in the House chambers). Still another wondered about the Rashomon effect — a plot device in a Japanese film in which characters provide differing and self-serving versions of the same incident — likely to emerge in post-speech commentary.
Though not visible in the simulcast, Vermont’s Congressional delegation was in the House chamber for the pope’s speech. Sen. Leahy issued a statement noting how he was moved by Francis’ speech and saying that the pope “brought a message that is substantively relevant, here and now.”
On his website, Sen. Bernie Sanders said Pope Francis “forces us to address some of the major issues facing humanity: war, income and wealth inequality, poverty, unemployment, greed, the death penalty and other issues that too many prefer to ignore.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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