At St. Mary’s University devout Catholics joined Americans from around the nation in watching Pope Francis address a joint session of Congress. St. Mary’s is one of three Catholic universities in San Antonio, where Catholics are by far the largest religious group. In Bexar County more than 30 percent of residents identify as Catholic.
As an audience of elected officials and dignitaries sat rapt in the U.S. House of Representatives, the crowd at St. Mary’s cupped their morning coffees and listened spellbound. For the first time, a pope, the leader of their church, was addressing a joint session of Congress.
“Oh, it’s historic. I’m just thrilled. I love this pope so much,” said Sister Gabriel Bibeau. She’s part of the Marianist tradition at St Mary’s which places a high value on working in the community.
She and others seized on the Pope’s words as he told a Congress deadlocked over immigration reform, that Americans should embrace immigrants as “the strangers in our midst.”
“Let us remember the Golden Rule: do unto others as you will have them do unto you,” the Pope said to loud applause.
“Especially, here being in San Antonio, and seeing all of the undocumented migrants being in the detention centers- women and children, families- there’s so much more we could be doing to address their needs,” said Sister Bibeau.
The crowd of 40 gathered in St. Mary’s pub also nodded agreement as the Pope in his white robes diplomatically waded into sensitive social issues.
He extolled the sanctity of all life, explaining that’s why he opposes the death penalty.
Sophomore biology student John Beckman says that made him reflect more deeply on his beliefs.
“In our society and world today it’s sad to see so much energy being put into exterminating people if you will. Like he said a better solution we could come up with is rehabilitation.”
Brian Buchmeyer, a student coordinator, has read Pope Francis's environmental encyclical and welcomed his challenge to halt “environmental deterioration”
“He’s speaking about the need for looking at the environment, looking at sustainability as an avenue to care for the poor. It kind of ties directly into how we buy things, how we use things, how we recycle things. That ties pretty close to me and how I live my life, I guess,” said Buchmeyer.
The Pontiff’s call to end the arms trade, assist the elderly, avoid wars by improving cooperation may have sounded like the words of a new, progressive leader.
But Sister Laura Leming, a sociologist of religion working at St. Mary’s, says those are values espoused by many popes of the past.
“Looking back at documents written in the early 1930’s, there’s one; it talks about some of the same themes he’s bringing up: distribution of wealth and opportunity for the vulnerable in our society. What he’s doing a little differently in his messaging is packaging that in a more accessible and friendly way.
Sister Bibeau watched as the elected officials seemed to reflect on Pope Francis’ words. She hopes her spiritual leader has been able to persuade officials to do what has so far eluded them.
“I hope his message for peace and for faith and for dialogue will make Democrats and Republicans really sit down together finally, and try to work out a solution that will make a difference in our country and our world,” she said.