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This morning Pope Francis delivered a pressing message on dignity before an audience that needed to hear it: the United States Congress.

The pope referred to the US legislators before him as the “face of the people,” urging them that their work promote the good and respect the dignity of human beings.

Pope Francis is welcomed to the Speakers Balcony at the US Capitol by members of Congress in Washington September 24, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

In that spirit, he spoke to the need to abolish the death penalty – saying, “Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

He reiterated his previous calls that all punishment be “just” and “never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” a clear criticism of life without parole.

He also spoke of the need to address the global refugee crisis, but brought the issue close to home:

On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? 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. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.

His speech, held in the House of Representatives and before a joint session of Congress, could serve as a deluge in a drought.

But the same chamber that applauded the pontiff today was notably silent during efforts to inject dignity into the US immigration system. Instead, it has repeatedly voted for measures to strip protections from immigrant children and to separate immigrant families. Compare that to the pope’s blessing of Sophie Cruz yesterday, a 5-year-old girl who asked the pope to help keep her immigrant parents in the US.

The House has also done little to improve the US criminal justice system – even in light of promising proposals

Pope Francis’s message was surprisingly direct on pushing against the congressional gridlock that has prevented positive reforms. He spoke repeatedly about the need for cooperation and work toward the common good (“the chief aim of all politics”).

Congress, for its part, should recognize that applauding and embracing dignity should not be reserved for special occasions and high dignitaries. It’s daily work. After Pope Francis returns to the Vatican, they should get to it. 

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