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Pope Francis's Historic Speech To Congress Touches On Death Penalty, Refugees, And "Threatened" Family

Francis is the first pontiff in history to address a joint meeting of Congress. BuzzFeed News reporters Ellie Hall and John Stanton are at the event.

Last updated on September 24, 2015, at 12:10 p.m. ET

Posted on September 24, 2015, at 8:57 a.m. ET

Pope Francis delivered a historic speech to Congress on Thursday, the first time the worldwide leader of more than 1 billion Catholics formally addressed U.S. lawmakers.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

The pope's speech – which comes at a time of great political division in the U.S. — touched on social responsibility and human dignity.

The pope thanked the lawmakers for his invitation to address Congress in "the land of the free and the home of the brave" which received a standing ovation from the House.

"Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States," the pope told Congress.

In his hour-long speech, the pope touched on and alluded to several hot button topics, including same-sex marriage, the right to life and the abolition of the death penalty. He called the institution of the family "threatened." And he also reiterated his positions on the refugee crisis, environmental protection and improving international relationships.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle found themselves repeatedly in awkward situations during his speech, though Republicans were clearly less enthused by his message than Democrats.

The pope made an indirect reference to the right to life, saying, "The Golden Rule reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." Republicans leapt to their feet, only to have their applause stutter as he immediately segued into an explicit call for an end to the death penalty — a position most Republicans oppose.

Calling for the global abolition of the death penalty, the pope said that "every life is sacred," and that rehabilitation for those convicted of crimes was possible.

Tony Gentile / AP

The pope reiterated his position on the refugee crisis, urging the U.S. "not to turn their back on our neighbors."

"We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners," the pope said, adding that he was the son of immigrants as were many present in Congress.

He spoke about the challenges of facing a "refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War."

"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," he said.

With his immigration section heavily peppered with references to respect for families and the need to treat one another with kindness, Republicans often looked to each other for clues on whether it was appropriate to clap, and if so, with how much vigor.

But in other instances, it was clear Republicans knew exactly what the pope was saying — and strongly disapproved. While Democrats repeatedly gave him ovations during his discussion of immigration, wealth distribution and social justice, nearly all the gathered Republicans sat in stony silence, frustration and outright annoyance etched on their faces.

Indeed, by halfway through his meditation on Dorothy Day — a Catholic social justice activist who founded the Catholic Workers movement — many of the most conservative lawmakers more resembled students that were being lectured by a principle than members of Congress.

LOTS of applause for pope's right to life remarks outside on the lawn, not so much to the death penalty stuff. #PopeInDC

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Democrats were not without their own moments of awkwardness. The pope's oblique reference to abortion, a word he never actually used, was sandwiched between his call for Americans to welcome immigrants and his call for an end to the death penalty, and many Democrats began clapping before stopping as the realization of what he had said clearly hit them.

In what appeared to be a reference to same-sex marriage legislation in the U.S., the pope said he was concerned about the institution of family, "which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without."

"Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family," the pope said.

His reference to marriage came during a rousing section extolling the benefits of family and it's place in the history of the United States — which again tripped up many liberal Democrats.

The pope also called on Congress to play an important role in environmental protection, a subject that he spoke about at length in his speech at the White House on Wednesday.

"We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all," he said. "I call for a courageous and responsible effort to "redirect our steps" and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

He once again praised the efforts of the Obama administration in "overcoming historic differences" of the past, referring to improving relations with Cuba, and called for an end to the arms trade.

He also spoke about violence and atrocities committed in the name of God and religion, saying, "no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism." He called for a "delicate balance" to combat such violence while "safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms."

He concluded his speech by expressing concern about the problems of youth saying they were "trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair."

The pope's last words to Congress were:

In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.
God bless America!

In many ways, the stumbling, hesitant responses to the pope by lawmakers were a reflection of the country itself. Fundamentally, Americans are unsure how to handle a leader who in one breath can demand a greater redistribution of wealth to protect the poor and proactive efforts to combat climate change, and in the next denounce abortion and question the move towards marriage equality.

For many Americans, these seem as contradictory positions, particularly when viewed through the lens of the two party political system. But for Pope Francis and many Catholics, these are simply reflections of their faith's complex views of the world.

The pope also addressed about 50,000 people who had gathered on Capitol Hall to hear him speak.

From the Speaker's Balcony, the pope asked people to pray for him and said he was "grateful" for their presence. " He said the most important thing were children present in the crowd and gave them his blessings.

"And if there among you, any who do not believe, or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way," the pope said.

As seen from the lawn: Pope Francis greets his flock. #PopeInDC

"Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See." #popeindc

Best shirt of the day so far goes to @FrMatthewLC #PopeinDC

Cliff Owen / AP

Speaker John Boehner invited Pope Francis to speak on Capitol Hill. He previously made unsuccessful attempts at inviting two other popes, The New York Times reported.

On Wednesday, the pope visited the White House, paraded around the Ellipse, addressed U.S. bishops at the St. Matthew's Cathedral and celebrated mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The pope's address will be before a Congress that is deeply divided over major policy issues. In his speech at the White House Wednesday, the pope praised the Obama government's efforts in improving relations with Cuba and his proposed climate change initiatives.

In a video welcoming the pope, Boehner acknowledged that some of the pope's positions "are a bit more controversial" but said that he was looking forward to his speech. "There's a lot of interest in what the pope is saying, his outreach to the poor, the fact that he thinks people ought to be more religious."

About 50,000 people will watch on screens outside the Capitol. The pope will address the crowd after.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.

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