WASHINGTON — Pope Francis urged the country to set aside partisan divisions and focus instead on hope and healing in a historic address to Congress on Thursday that briefly suspended political rancor in the nation's capital.
Describing himself as the son of immigrants, the first pope from the New World offered an impassioned defense of "the stranger in our midst," called for an end to the death penalty globally and implored policymakers to adopt "courageous actions" to address climate change.
Delivering the first address by a pope to Congress, the pontiff's overarching moral theme was the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics asked lawmakers to support one another in a "renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity" as they confront geopolitical challenges.
Lawmakers from both parties listened — some at the edges of their seats, others jumping to applause, a few wiping away tears — as the 78-year-old pontiff admonished them to use their political strength for "restoring hope, righting wrongs."
"If we want security, let us give security," Pope Francis said in soft, accented English. "If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.
"The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us."
With Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner behind him, the pope denounced the arms trade, urged action on climate change and pressed his audience toward a more charitable view of immigrants.
Noting the unfolding migration crisis in Europe as well as immigrants on this continent who are "led to travel north," the Argentinian-born son of Italian immigrants warned against repeating the turbulence that accompanied past movements of people, including the European settlement of the Americas.
"We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners," he said. "We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us."
Pope Francis, who had never visited the United States before landing at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County on Tuesday, called himself "a son of this great continent," and invoked historical lessons from four Americans — Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and two major Catholic figures: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton and the pacifist and anti-poverty activist Dorothy Day.
He rarely touched on specific U.S. policy, and his language was general enough that members of both parties found points they could support. But the pattern of applause in the House chamber made clear that papal calls to abolish the death penalty, combat climate change and work against income inequality were more welcome on the Democratic side of the aisle.
"A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation," he said of capital punishment.
The pope, whose popularity in the United States far exceeds that of Congress or President Barack Obama, was pointedly critical of the arms trade. He said weapons manufacturers were brokering in "money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood."
While Francis did not use the word "abortion," he spoke of protecting "human life at every stage of its development."
Lawmakers listened to the pope's message of inclusion and cooperation hours before opening a difficult, partisan debate over abortion. Legislation needed to keep the government running past Sept. 30 has been threatened by Republican demands to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions among other medical procedures.
Months after the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a constitutional right to marry a partner of the same sex, Pope Francis spoke in support of the traditional family. He has been seen as setting a softer tone than his predecessors on homosexuality; he drew international attention in 2013 by answering a question on gay priests by asking: "Who am I to judge?"
"I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without," he said Thursday. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, was selected as one of the lawmakers to escort the pope to the House chamber. Mikulski, who is Catholic, said she delivered a letter to the pontiff thanking him for his role in securing the release of Alan Gross from Cuba last year. Gross was a government contractor from Potomac who was captured by the Castro government in 2009.
"He called on us to put aside rancor and polarization — which I think is really of absolute necessity — to work for the common good," Mikulski said. "If we could all be working on problems the way we sat there and welcomed the pope today, I think we'd have an even better nation."
He is the third pope Mikulski has met. The senator recalled taking her parents to see Pope John Paul II during his 1979 visit to the United States, and that they spoke to him in Polish, his native tongue.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Catholic and Maryland's only Republican in Congress, said he was impressed by Pope Francis' ability to "communicate so effectively the traditional Catholic messages of mercy and forgiveness."
Thousands gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol to watch the address on Jumbotrons. Some chanted "USA." and sang "God Bless America."
After the address, the pontiff appeared briefly on the Speaker's Balcony to greet the crowd — "Buenos días," he declared — before visiting with the homeless and others in need at St. Patrick's Church in downtown Washington.
During his address, Pope Francis challenged Congress to act with compassion toward immigrants. The question of what to do with an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without legal documentation has divided lawmakers, and legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws has been stalled for years.
"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?" the pope asked. "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."
Tribune Newspapers' Washington bureau contributed to this article