Kenrick-Glennon Seminary watch party shows appreciation pope's historic address to Congress

In his address to Congress on Sept. 24, Pope Francis touched on familiar topics -- the poor, immigration, the sanctity of life, religious freedom, the environment.

However, the lasting impact of his historic speech might not be so much what he said but the venue in which he said it ... and the people to whom he said it.

Republicans and Democrats, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Supreme Court justices came together to hear the pope's speech to a joint meeting of Congress – the first time a pope has addressed Congress.

It was only one hour of the pope's whirlwind trip to Cuba and United States, which culminated with a Mass Sept. 27 to close the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, but for that one hour, they were united not only as politicians but as Americans and human beings. They rose in unison on numerous occasions to give the pontiff standing ovations.

"It was really neat to see the whole place getting behind the messages of human dignity ... issues that touch everyone no matter what," said Arick Middeke, in his fifth year at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary after graduating from Cardinal Glennon College this past spring. "Seems like whenever I watch Congress together, in speeches, debates or whatever, you see half the people applauding and the other half silent."

Democrats and Republicans usually are at loggerheads, with harsh rhetoric and Congress often immobilized by extremely different views on issues. But that changed Sept. 24, with Argentine pontiff at the podium.

"Pope Francis himself has admitted he struggles with the (English) language, but in spite of that, he commanded the room well simply because he is the Holy Father," said Ryan Quarnstrom, a seminary freshman who graduated from De Smet Jesuit in May. "People on both sides of political issues respect him for that."

Middeke and Quarnstrom, both members of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, watched the pope's address live, Middeke in a classroom and Quarnstrom in a "Watch Party" at Kenrick-Glennon's Fire Side Lounge. They were among many Americans, not just Catholics, caught up in Papa-palooza, as it is called in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

"I thought the pope's presence in general is an incredible witness to the faith and really a good reminder of what we value," Quarnstrom said. "His address comes at a time when many Americans question our national fidelity to our Christian foundation. I think the pope did an excellent job of reminding our law makers what's really important."

Pope Francis spoke non-controversially, neither chastising not criticizing.

"I felt like he really affirmed our country, and that opened our ears a little more to what he had to say in ways of challenging us," Middeke said. "He affirmed the dignity of the American people despite their involvement in politics or whatever. ... He reached out to all Americans.

Father James Mason, the president-rector at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, joined faculty, staff and a few seminarians for the Watch Party.

"He gave everybody something to think about and to pray about," Father Mason said. "It was challenging for all, but underneath, it was hope and encouragement, and also very respectful of what we've done here in the United States of America and our witness to the world.

"He did what the Church does; he didn't go into the specifics of politics, but he offers a vision and he offers a conscience. That's the Church -- to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, that's our call. We all need to be pinched at different times and alternately we need to be encouraged as well."

Mostly, we need to listen to each other, and that might be main take-away from the pope's address to Congress.

"I felt like you could predict some of the things he was going to talk about, but when you looked around the (class)room and all the guys just kind of had a smile on their face," said Middeke, who called the address "inspirational. ... We just felt like we were listening to a very historical event take place."

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