Some regional religious, community and political leaders were reflective after hearing Pope Francis’ words to both the U.S. Congress and the people on Thursday during the pontiff’s historic trip to the United States.
The pope spoke on several political issues, including immigration, income inequality, the death penalty and the environment. Francis said his speech was for the entire nation as he spoke to legislators during an address before a joint session of Congress.
The Most Rev. Stephen Blaire, bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, was in Washington this week, attending the pope’s address to U.S. bishops Wednesday at St. Matthew Cathedral as well as being present in the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives on Thursday, said diocese spokeswoman Sister Terry Davis.
“People ask me what impact I think (the pope’s address) will have. I would like to suggest that it is like a retreat when there is little immediate effect on one’s life but over the course of time the retreat experience plays out into everyday real life,” Blaire said in a statement. “What a difference for our nation and the world if the pope’s words come into play over the months and years ahead.”
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, was part of the congressional audience Thursday.
“His words transcend partisan politics and instead give each of us an opportunity to look heavenward and reflect on our many blessings and opportunities,” Denham said in a news release.
While the Rev. Francis Arakal at Modesto’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was unable to hear the pope’s entire address, he said he did hear portions of it and noted several key messages.
“I thought for all the Catholics he is someone to be proud of,” Arakal said. “He’s a great spiritual leader who brought a message of peace and reconciliation.”
While noting the pope’s words about following the golden rule, being mindful of the poor and welcoming immigrants, Arakal was particularly moved by the pontiff’s comments about seeking “the path of dialogue rather than the path of confrontation.”
“I think that really struck me,” he said.
Rabbi Shalom Bochner at Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto said in an email that he’s been following the pope’s visit to the extent that the recent Jewish high holidays have allowed; he did read a complete transcript of the congressional address.
“As a non-Catholic and a non-Christian, I have been very moved and inspired by Pope Francis’ leadership and vision over the past two-plus years,” Bochner said. “His comments while addressing Congress about all people being made in the image of God and entitled to dignity and respect, spoke to me personally. I was also very impressed that he addressed the problems of violence and hate done in the name of religion and God and the intensifying arms race.”
Regarding the pontiff’s concerns about the environment, Bochner agreed that “environmental changes and destruction are one of the biggest and most serious threats facing our future as humanity and as a living planet. I’m very encouraged that the head of Catholic Church is addressing these dangers and our role in preventing these life-threatening assaults on our world.”
Kevin Carroll, executive director for Modesto Gospel Mission, said in an email that he “was encouraged that the pope called for a renewal of a spirit of cooperation. I have always felt we can get more accomplished together than apart from each other. Our community in the past has displayed this cooperative spirit when faced with adversities.”
Carroll said he read the transcript from the pope’s address and noted that in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus “reminds us how people should be treated.”
“In communities across our nation, people are struggling with all kinds of issues with crime, substance abuse, homelessness and many more,” Carroll said. “I think the difficulty has always been between enabling and empowering to change.”
Some community members weighed in on Facebook, where The Modesto Bee asked for input from readers on the pope’s address. “I am not a Christian, I am not Catholic. I think his speech was correct and to the point,” posted David Stevens. “I just hope the so-called Christians and Catholics in the Congress listen to his words and grow up and actually act like Christians.”
Bel Alinea Tengco, a Merced resident who is in Washington, D.C. has been following the pope’s U.S. tour closely. She was present during Wednesday’s Mass for the canonization of now St. Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She said this was an experience she could best describe as a blessing.
“It was out of this world to be there in person,” Tengco said. “I was so touched.”
On Thursday she watched the pope’s joint session to Congress on TV. She said she admired that the pope tackled important issues such as immigration and climate change.
“He reminded us about the teachings of Christ – to care for others, for the immigrants, for the poor,” she said. “And to be a caretaker of the planet; I think that was very important.”
Similarly, Adelina Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant and former fieldworker in Merced, said she hopes the pope’s message of peace and justice reached those who have opposed an immigration reform.
“Maybe he doesn’t have political power, but he is very influential,” she said.
Hernandez, who has been vocal in community forums advocating for health coverage for undocumented immigrants, said she believes the pope’s address resonated with many locals, especially those who have migrated from other countries pursuing the American dream.
Merced Sun-Star reporter Ana B. Ibarra contributed to this report.