Speaker John Boehner wasn’t the only one fighting back tears Thursday morning when Pope Francis walked into the U.S. House chamber — the first pontiff ever to address a joint meeting of Congress.
“It was a very emotional experience for me,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., adding he couldn’t help but cry when the pope arrived.
“Man, I’m a complete sap,” he added later, tearing up again as he described the event.
For Kaine — a Catholic who took a year off college to perform Jesuit missionary work in Honduras — seeing the church’s first Jesuit and Latin American pope take center stage in the Capitol was a powerful moment.
The former Virginia governor found himself thinking back to missionaries with whom he worked in 1980 in an environment where Jesuits were targeted by Latin American dictators because of their work on human rights.
Some people with whom Kaine worked in the small city of El Progreso later were killed by government forces.
“These were people who were great heroes at a huge cost,” he said, adding it gave him a glimpse of the “challenging, difficult atmosphere” that shaped the pope’s early years as a priest.
During his hour-long address, Francis drew upon the lives of four Americans — President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic social activist Dorothy Day and religious philosopher Thomas Merton — as he underscored the world’s need for compassion, service to others and courageous leadership.
Kaine said he was struck by the decision to frame the message to Congress against the backdrop of what Americans at their best can do.
“The speech was about setting high expectations for us,” he said. “So often, everything in our line of work is in kind of low-expectations mode — we can’t get anything done, we should kick it down the road for awhile, we can’t tackle big challenges.”
“His whole speech was a very different thing. It was saying that we could do it, that we have and that we can and that we need to.”
While Francis touched on policy issues — from climate change to immigration to the death penalty — Kaine said he felt the speech was ultimately about values.
“It was, here are the challenges of the world,” the senator said, “and they require an America that is united in the way that Lincoln united us; that is on a quest for equality and justice in the way that King was; that is watching out for the least of us in the way that Dorothy Day was; and that is open to interreligious dialogue in the way that Thomas Merton was.”
The political notes sounded in the speech contained things that challenged both sides of the aisle. Kaine said that is as it should be.
He said he was taken aback by Francis’s strong condemnation of the arms trade. The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of major weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
On Thursday, Francis said arms sales money is “drenched in blood” and the world has a duty to put a stop to it.
“That is a tough thing,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’ve got to let that sink in. You’ve got to think about what that means, and you’ve got to ask yourself about your motives and what our motives are as a nation.”
That, too, is as it should be, Kaine added.
“The speech ought to be one where we all go in and listen and find things that challenge our thinking,” he said.