Politics never far from pope’s D.C. visit, as groups pressed their issues

A rally against climate change commanded much of the National Mall as Pope Francis spoke to Congress Thursday. Rallies and causes were never far from the pope during his visit. (Photo by Adriana Barajas/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Petra Falcon was expecting something like a religious experience this week when she was invited to the White House reception for Pope Francis.

“I was all prepared to receive a blessing,” said Falcon, the executive director of Promise Arizona.

What she got instead was a speech laced with policy issues.

“He was very, very animated about issues important to the world, but also to the United States,” said Falcon, of Phoenix. “The first thing he said was, ‘Thank you for welcoming me into your country. I come from a country of immigrants and I know that your country has been built on the work of such people.”

Although Pope Francis is a faith leader, politics and policy were never far during his visit to Washington this week, either in his own statements or in the form of protesters trying to get attention for their issues by tying them to the pope’s visit.

They were people with a cause like Jose Montes, who was on the National Mall on Thursday advocating for climate change and immigration reform while the pope was delivering a historic address to Congress.

“Climate change, immigration, things that are important in today’s society, especially to the youth and the millenial generation,” Montes said at the Moral Action on Climate rally.

He said the issue is linked with immigration because immigrants “oftentimes escape our countries because of the conditions we live in.”

“There are many people, children especially of undocumented immigrants, who suffer from asthma and diseases that are caused by the climate and the environment that we live in,” he said.

Many brought their causes to Washington knowing they were not likely to get the attention of the pope, but hoping to get attention anyway. That was the case for the 100 women who marched 100 miles this week from an immigration detention center in Pennsylvania to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where the pope celebrated Mass on Wednesday.

Phoenix resident Maria Cruz Ramirez said she decided to take part in the “We Belong Together” march because of the pain of families separated by deportation or those “in detention centers and who have left family, kids and spouses behind.”

In his speech to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis touched on numerous policy positions, from opposition to the death penalty and abortion, from poverty to social justice, from environmental activism to refugee relief.

Lawmakers gave the speech generally high marks, even though there was something that most disagreed with as well. But for Falcon, the message was simple – and welcome.

“Basically … the pope is saying embrace the poor and welcome everyone and embrace the poor and be there for each other,” she said.