Pope’s historic speech before Congress a hot ticket

  • Written by:

Melissa Nann Burke, The Detroit News
(Photo: Filippo Monteforte / Getty Images)
Washington — Tickets for Pope Francis’ historic address here later this month are a hot commodity, with each lawmaker allowed to invite a single guest to sit in the gallery for the first-ever speech by the head of the Catholic Church to Congress.

Guests of Michigan’s 16-member delegation for the Sept. 24 address include Paul Long, head of the Michigan Catholic Conference; Martin Manna, an advocate for Iraqi Christian refugees and president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce in Southfield; the Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids; and Karl Kiser, president of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy — a guest of Sen. Gary Peters.

“It is obviously a great honor to have Pope Francis address Congress,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

“I’m inviting a friend of mine who is Catholic and has a birthday coming up, but I can’t tell you their name because it’s a surprise.”

Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township; David Trott, R-Birmingham; and Dave Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, are bringing their respective spouses to hear the speech, which is expected to be delivered in English.

“We’re excited. I can’t believe we’ll be in the same room,” said Benishek, who is Catholic and was forced to cancel a trip to Rome for a papal audience in 2001 due to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I hope it’s a stirring speech, and I hope he touches on some pro-life issues.”

The Catholic Church opposes abortion, arguing that human life must be protected from the moment of conception.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who also is Catholic and invited Long as her guest, said she greatly admires Francis and his emphasis on serving others, including the sick and the hungry.

“I think that will be part of his message on that day, but always it’s that we’re all members of a community. The Congress needs to remember that we’re a community, and that we’ve got far more in common, and what our responsibilities are to each other as part of that community,” Dingell said.

“I just hope we don’t politicize his speech. This is a very special moment in our history. He’ll bring us together — that’s my hope.”

Lotteries held for tickets

Members of the House each have 50 general-admission tickets for the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, where Francis will make a brief appearance on the Capitol steps or the Speaker’s balcony. Senators each have 200 tickets to distribute.

Dingell and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, are holding lotteries for the limited pool of general-admission tickets, with a deadline to enter of Friday.

Other offices are offering the tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. An estimated 50,000 people are expected on the Capitol grounds to watch, and others will likely assemble on the National Mall hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

Those who secure general-admission tickets for the Capitol lawn will be able to watch the papal address as it’s simulcast on jumbotrons. The joint address begins at 10 a.m., and Francis is supposed to depart the Capitol by 11 a.m.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has invited three different popes to address a joint session of Congress during the last 20 years “and finally succeeded,” he said in a recent video. Boehner and Francis are meeting privately before the pontiff’s address.

Francis’ visit to the Capitol falls on the second day of his U.S. trip, which will include stops in New York and Philadelphia.

Manna — invited to the congressional address by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield — also will get to see Francis on his first day in Washington, representing the Chaldean Catholic community at a White House reception at the invitation of the State Department, he said.

Francis’ refugee efforts praised

“As fellow Catholics, we are just so honored of the work he’s been doing for all people really, but especially bringing the plight of the refugee crisis throughout the Middle East to the world — not only here in the U.S. but at the United Nations and other parts of the world,” Manna said.

“Frankly, he’s been our biggest advocate to make these Arab and Muslim governments in the Middle East to be more accepting of minorities and to preserve Christianity in its birthplace.”

Since 2007, about 30,000 Iraqi refugees have made their way to southeast Michigan. An affiliate of Manna’s group annually serves nearly 18,000 of them, helping with everything from short-term loans to job searches to citizenship applications.

Manna hopes Francis’ remarks will refer to persecution and expulsion that Christians have faced from Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq, and what the United States could be doing better to protect, support and preserve the Chaldean community in that part of the world.

“I’m hopeful in his remarks that he will talk about the fact that what’s happened to the Christians in Iraq and in Syria should be labeled as a genocide for the ongoing persecution the community has endured for more than 12 years, since the U.S.-led invasion,” Manna said.

The Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the ecumenical Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, will attend the papal address at the invitation of Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland.

Sirico doesn’t think it was a good idea for Francis to accept Boehner’s invitation because he can’t avoid having his message interpreted in political ways and parsed by partisan camps to their own advantage — especially during a U.S. presidential election campaign, he said

“He won’t be there as a policy wonk but as a pastor,” said Sirico, a frequent commentator on the church and the pope.

“The thing that’s so riveting about him is how spontaneous he is, which is why I think this is time to get the popcorn and sit in front of the television.”

The press and commentators have misinterpreted Francis as hostile to free markets, but that’s inaccurate, said Sirico, whose group promotes the “study of free-market economics informed by religious faith.”

“He’s critical of the ways that some people act in the markets, and certainly any kind of idolatry of consumerism, but on the other hand he says that business is a noble vocation,” Sirico said.