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Washington • Facing a crowd divided and fueled by partisan politics, Pope Francis on Thursday urged cooperation in tackling the world's major problems even as he delved into the hot-button issues of immigration, climate change, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.
The Catholic pontiff, the first ever to speak to Congress, spent 52 minutes addressing a joint session of the House and Senate, offering a message of inclusion and unity as part of his inaugural trip to America. He spoke softly, in halting English, and earned rounds of applause even as some more controversial statements were met with applause from one side of the aisle and near silence from the other.
"The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States," the pope said. "The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience."
Six days away from a possible government shutdown and amid a contentious presidential campaign, Francis reminded a packed chamber literally separated by party with an aisle that they are called to pursue the "common good," likening them to Moses, whose image appears on the wall opposite where the pope spoke.
"Legislative activity is always based on care for the people," the leader of the world's largest Christian faith said. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominates religious followers in Utah, Catholicism ranks as the state's second largest faith, with more than 300,000 adherents.
Francis offered a speech more filled with politics than religious commentary, addressing topics from the death penalty to abortion to human-caused environmental degradation. He also extolled the virtues of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
The pope said a delicate balance is needed to combat violence perpetrated in the name of religion and safeguarding religious and individual freedoms. He also warned against simplistic views that see only "good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners."
"The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect too many of our brothers and sisters," Francis said, "demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps."
In a chamber often filled with political spats over liberal or conservative ideas, he earned one of the longer standing ovations of his speech when he recited the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"Let us treat others," the pope added, "with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated."
Several Utah lawmakers were in the chamber for the historic speech: Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and GOP Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Mia Love. Lee and Chaffetz invited their spouses to attend as well.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who wasn't in the room for Thursday's speech, praised the pope for trying to elicit peace in the partisan system.
"In a city and institution that is far too often overrun with partisanship, it's refreshing to unite for the visit of Pope Francis," Stewart said. "He provides strength and inspiration to so many around the world, and we are honored that he could address Congress."
Love, who was raised Catholic before converting to Mormonism, said she appreciated Francis' comments on protecting life at all stages, the value of family and protecting the land.
"During his speech, I had the feeling the pope was talking to us as individuals, not just as legislators," Love said. "He was talking to the souls of the American people."
Rep. Rob Bishop, the remaining member of Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation, was unable to attend Thursday's speech.
Rod Arquette, a host on Utah's KNRS, who also grew up in a Catholic family before joining the LDS Church, watched the pope from the corner of the House chamber, a ticket he obtained from Love's office.
Arquette said he thought a lot about his mom and dad and what they would think of him being so close to the leader of the faith in which he grew up. And while Arquette didn't agree with everything Francis said, the radio host noted he was struck by comments about how a nation of so much prosperity should be helping those in need.
"I wondered if his talk was not only meant for the people gathered in that room," Arquette said, "but for the American people."
Just outside the Capitol, about 50,000 people waited in the early-morning hours for a chance to see the pope when he emerged onto the Speaker's Balcony for a few remarks.
Among them was Utahn Glen Tracy, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Draper, who brought his 12-year-old son, Spencer. Tracy called it an "amazing experience."
"It was truly inspirational," the father said. "He's an inspiring and truly inspirational man."
The elder Tracy noted that he stood next to several Catholic school teachers who joked that the pope should write Spencer a note to excuse him from class and all were in tears when Francis urged Congress to follow the Golden Rule.
"We should treat people the way we want to be treated," Tracy said.
The Argentine pope emphasized that point in talking about immigration, an issue he spent considerable time addressing before Congress, which has put off any meaningful reform in the past decade.
Francis spoke of being a son of an immigrant and noted that many in the room also were "descended from immigrants," earning a smattering of applause.
Amid an immigration crisis in Europe the biggest, he said, since World War II the world must remember not to "repeat the sins and errors of the past" when a stranger appeals for help.
"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 we can to their situation," the pope said. "To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."
Francis is now in New York City, where he will address the United Nations. He then goes to Philadelphia, where he will attend the eighth World Meeting of Families. A high-level LDS Church official also is expected at that summit.
The pope said that during his visit to America, the "family should be a recurrent theme" in his public remarks. He never mentioned same-sex marriage, though the underlying point was clear.
"I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without," he said. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life."
Weighing into hotter topics in American politics, the pope earned GOP applause for mentioning the need to protect life "at every stage of development," and then quickly pivoted to Catholic opposition to the death penalty, prompting one Democrat to stand up and shout with glee.
Francis also directed his comments squarely at another topic that has polarized this Congress: climate change. Referencing an encyclical in which he called for action on human-made climate change, the pope called for a "courageous and responsible effort" to change course and avert the serious effects caused by human activity on the planet.
"I am convinced that we can make a difference," he said, "and I have no doubt that the United States and this Congress have an important role to play."
Francis who spoke under the words "In God We Trust" chiseled into the granite wall behind him took his message to Congress to the streets shortly after his address. Leaving behind the ceremonial morning moments, the pope visited the 221-year-old St. Patrick's Church in downtown Washington, where he mingled and prayed with the homeless.