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Pope prepares for historic address to Congress

Posted: 8:35 AM, Sep 24, 2015
Updated: 2015-09-24 12:35:16Z

Fresh from enrapturing crowds all over Washington, Pope Francis is bringing his resonant message of humility and hope to Capitol Hill as he becomes the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Lawmakers of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations have thrilled to the pope's arrival in Washington, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them and to hear him out Thursday morning.

Tens of thousands of spectators were expected to watch from the West Lawn of the Capitol, and many more on TV from around the world. The packed House chamber was to include Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, diplomats, lawmakers and their guests.

RELATED: Thousands gather to see Pope Francis in Washington

The sergeant at arms was to announce the pope by saying, "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See," with Francis entering the chamber and climbing to the dais where the president delivers the annual State of the Union address and monarchs and heads of state have addressed Congress.

Sitting behind the pope: Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the first and second in line to the presidency. Both are Catholic.

Lawmakers already were trying to take political advantage from his policy stands.

Democrats delighted in his support for action to overhaul immigration laws and combat global warming and income inequality. One House Republican back-bencher planned to boycott the speech over Francis' activist position on climate change, which the pontiff renewed alongside President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

But Boehner, a former altar boy who invited the pope to speak after trying unsuccessfully to lure the two previous pontiffs to the Capitol, has dismissed concerns that the politically engaged Francis will stir the controversies of the day.

"The pope transcends all of this," Boehner said. "He appeals to our better angels and brings us back to our daily obligations. The best thing we can all do is listen, open our hearts to his message and reflect on his example."

The Senate's Republican leader welcomed the pope Thursday morning with an up-to-the-minute video that included images from Wednesday's parade.

"Americans have watched the pope reach new and different audiences, both from within his flock and far beyond it," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

For Congress, the pope was arriving at a moment of particular turmoil: A partial government shutdown looms next week unless lawmakers can resolve a dispute over funding for Planned Parenthood related to the group's practices providing fetal tissue for research.

Boehner himself is facing a brewing revolt from tea party members who've threatened to force a floor vote on whether he can keep his job.

Francis was certain to steer clear of such controversies, though his opposition to abortion could bolster Republicans in their efforts against Planned Parenthood. For members of Congress, his visit may prove little more than a brief respite from their partisan warfare, offering moments of unusual solemnity, uplift and pomp, but without fundamentally shifting the intractable gears of the U.S. political system.

Indeed there's little sign on Capitol Hill of significant action on the social justice issues dear to Francis' heart. But on Wednesday the pope said simply that in addressing Congress "I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles."

Francis enjoys approval ratings the envy of any U.S. politician as he's singlehandedly remade the image of the Catholic Church toward openness and compassion, yet without changing fundamental church doctrine. Addressing a chamber full of elected officials Thursday, he may be the most adept politician in the room.

After speaking in the House chamber Francis was to stop by the Capitol's Statuary Hall and its statue of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century missionary whom Francis elevated to sainthood Wednesday in the first canonization on U.S. soil.

He was scheduled to briefly step out onto a Capitol balcony to address the crowds on the West Front. Later, he planned to stop at St. Patrick's Catholic Church and the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, before leaving for New York for more prayer services and a speech to the United Nations.

For Francis, it's been a whirlwind three-day visit to Washington, the first stop on his three-city U.S. tour.

On Wednesday he was cheered by jubilant crowds as he visited the White House, paraded around the Ellipse and spoke to U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Francis emphasized one of the defining messages of his papacy, to focus less on defending church teaching and more on compassion. The pope told the American church leaders that "harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor" and he encouraged them to speak with anyone, no matter their views.

In his first comments in the U.S. on the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in 2002, the pope praised the bishops for a "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" and for acting "without fear of self-criticism."

An organization for abuse victims quickly disagreed.

"Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now," said Barbara Dorris, president of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Later Wednesday, Francis celebrated a Mass of Canonization for Junipero Serra in Spanish. Several thousand of the 25,000 tickets to the event were set aside for Spanish-speaking people, many from California, where Serra did his work. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception erected a temporary sanctuary outdoors for the Mass, which lasted into the evening.