By David Holmquist
John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, is a devout Catholic. He has invited the last three Popes to address a joint session of Congress, and his longstanding wish has now been fulfilled. Pope Francis accepted Speaker Boehner’s invitation, and will visit the Capitol to address a joint session on the morning of September 24th.
That evening, beginning at 7 o’clock, a group of civic, environmental, and faith-based organizations will present “Pope Francis’ Challenge,” a viewing and speak-out at the Oak Park Public Library, where a video recording of the Pope’s address will be shown and attendees will be invited to share their thoughts on the significance of this historic event and the issues raised in the papal address.
On Friday, September 25th, Pope Francis will be visiting the United Nations in New York City, where he will speak to the General Assembly. That appearance coincides with the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015, a three-day meeting of world leaders which will formally adopt the UN’s sustainable development agenda and goals for 2030.
Spokespersons for the Vatican have made it known that Pope Francis will speak to the issue of immigration, and it is widely assumed that he will use the occasion to urge American lawmakers to act boldly on the climate and environmental justice issues he addressed in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” However, few additional hints have yet been made public as to the specific subjects the pontiff might include in his speech. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service suggested in a report last month that:
At the center of both speeches will be a call to work for the common good—not just the interests of their campaign supporters or even of all their constituents—with a vision that recognizes, as the pope repeatedly says, that there is only one human family and that people have a shared responsibility for others and the world.
While Pope Francis is the first pontiff to address Congress, a number of his predecessors have addressed the United Nations. Wooden noted that Francis can be expected to follow the precedents set on those previous occasions, praising the founding ideals of both the United States and the United Nations while urging the leaders of both to consistently live up to those ideals. Other themes from Laudato Si’ which one might expect to hear are the “globalization of indifference,” the “throwaway culture” and “the economy of exclusion,” which the Pope contends are drivers of poverty, environmental degradation, climate injustice, and a host of other social ills.
The Oak Park event is one of many that will attempt to focus national attention on the Pope’s visit to the United States, in solidarity with the Washington, D.C.-based Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. The centerpiece of the action is a rally on the morning of the speech on the National Mall, part of a gathering which the Washington Park Police are estimating will number in the range of 300 to 400 thousand people. Each member of Congress was given 52 tickets for admission to seating on the West Lawn of the Capitol to listen to the Pope’s address. The rally participants will congregate just behind the West Lawn seating, and the organizers expect the rally to be livestreamed over the internet. Check their website for updates to the schedule, as the logistics are subject to change. The website also describes related activities being held in and around the capital in the week surrounding the visit, including:
A celebration of Yom Kippur, “Day of Atonement / At-Onement.” Sundown to Sundown, Tuesday, September 22nd to Wednesday September 23rd at the Lincoln Memorial.
An overnight Interfaith Prayer Vigil in solidarity with Pope Francis, led by the Franciscan Action Network. The vigil will begin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 23rd and end at 7 a.m. on Thursday, September 24th, near the National Mall. Faith communities are being invited to “claim” one of the twelve hours of the vigil to lead prayer in the manner of their tradition.
A march originating at All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22nd, to join the overnight Interfaith Prayer Vigil.
The Rallyis scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, and last until 12:30 p.m. It will frame Pope Francis’ address, and include a variety of speakers from sponsoring organizations.
On Thursday evening at 7:30, there will be a “Coming Together in Faith and Celebration” at the National Cathedral.
An early start on the Week of Moral Action was initiated by twelve members of a Maryland-based group which calls itself Beyond Extreme Energy and has been staging protests over the past year at the Washington, D.C. offices of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Their primary demand is that the Commission cease issuing permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly the pipelines, transit stations and export terminals that support the expansion of oil and gas fracking. On September 8th they began an 18-day water-only fast at FERC which will end on September 25th. The fasters are spending the days on the sidewalk in front of the FERC offices, handing out literature and engaging passers-by in conversation about climate change, alternative energy, and the “regulatory capture” of the Commission by the oil and gas industry. A handful of FERC employees have stopped to talk, in spite of a directive from their management that they not engage with the protesters.
Events are also planned for New York on September 25th, near the United Nations, including a prayer vigil and a civil society rally. And in Washington on Saturday the focus will shift to one rapidly evolving solution to the climate crisis: ecosystem restoration. A group by the name of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate will hold a one-day conference on the potential for sequestering carbon naturally through ecosystem services provided by wetlands, regenerative agriculture, and the renewal of the water cycle.
Finally, a broad coalition of climate and environmental justice groups are gearing up for significant rallies and actions in October and November, leading up to the Paris meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) which begins on November 30th. Pope Francis’ visit to the United States is expected to generate momentum for this organizing, around the nation and in Oak Park.
Click here to RSVP for the Oak Park event “Pope Francis’ Challenge.” If you know someone in the Washington area, share this to make sure they know about the Week of Moral Action on Climate, and encourage them to lend their much-needed time to help with the organizing.