When Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress this September, he will be the first pontiff to do so and just the second religious leader (if one counts Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who also heads the Anglican Church). Since the first Congress in 1789, only 118 foreign leaders or dignitaries have been invited to address a congressional joint meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives.
The pontiff has addressed climate change and other issues that divide many members of Congress. A papal adviser said Francis would speak “frankly but friendly” to Congress.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, who extended the invitation to Francis, said his pastoral message “challenges people of all faiths, ideologies and political parties.” Boehner added that the occasion would “offer an excellent opportunity for the American people as well as the nations of the world to hear his message in full.”
Other esteemed figures have used the congressional podium to deliver memorable words:
- Only three weeks after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the assembled Congress, “You do not, I am certain, underrate the severity of the ordeal to which you and we have still to be subjected,” and he spoke of how the two nations would defend “all that to free men is dear.”
- Speaking to Congress in 1990, six months after being released from prison, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela told lawmakers their invitation “derived from your own desire to convey a message to our people, and … give them an opportunity to say what they want of you.” South Africans “demand democracy,” he said simply. He had spent 27 years in prison because “it would have been immoral to keep quiet while a racist tyranny sought to reduce an entire people into a status worse than that of the beasts of the forest.”
- Days after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Lech Walesa, who was then chairman of Poland’s Solidarnosc labor union, began his remarks to Congress with the opening words of the U.S. Constitution. “We the people,” he said, and paused. “I do not need to explain that I, an electrician from Gdansk, am also entitled to invoke them,” he said. He urged U.S. assistance to countries beginning their transition from communism.