Pope Francis knows how to get a reaction—even if said reaction doesn’t make perfect sense.
His powerful address to Congress touch on some hard topics—climate change, abortion, immigration—nearly every divisive issue facing U.S. lawmakers right now. And he elicited tears, whoops, fist-pumps, and—well, confusion.
Unlike State of the Union addresses—when members of Congress rocket out of their seats and whoop for joy at the slightest mention of American exceptionalism—the pope’s speech drew lots of squints, side-eye, and expressions of confusion from both sides of the aisle. That all was periodically interrupted, of course, by the kind of passionate outbursts you’d expect from a roomful of people who dedicate their careers to ripping out each other’s larynxes.
The reason? Many simply couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Numerous members who spoke to The Daily Beast said they had trouble understanding everything the Pope had to say; the combination of his thick Argentinian accent, his soft voice (doctors removed part of one of his lungs when he was a teen), and his halting English left more than a few members scratching their heads.
But if that’s the case, it prompts the question: Who the hell claps for something they can’t understand? Maybe they were starstruck, maybe it was politeness (a first for many), or maybe they were just following the crowd—because Congress.
Throughout the speech, members of Congress—often after pausing and looking around at each other—applauded sentiments that were wildly divergent from their stated beliefs.
For instance, when the pope made an impassioned for accepting more immigrants into the U.S., he drew a parallel between the migration of Central American immigrants to this country and the Syrian refugee crisis, telling members of Congress not to be “taken aback by their numbers.”
“Let us remember the Golden Rule,” he continued. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Meaning the U.S. has a moral obligation to accept Central American immigrants, many of whom fled drug violence in their home countries.
“If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities,” he continued. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert—a Texas Republican who has pushed for D.C. to cooperate more with federal deportation efforts—rose to his feet at the comment, soberly nodded his head, and clapped along.
And Virginia Rep. Dave Brat—who defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last summer in a shocking primary upset, in part because of the national support he drew for his opposition to any kind of so-called “amnesty”—was also on his feet, clapping.
As were the rest of the House Republicans, including the immigration hawks responsible for aborting the 2013 efforts at passing comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation.
Others seemed to know exactly what he was saying.
Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat and ardent advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, jumped to his feet and stretched out his arms when the pope made the Golden Rule comment.
But Republicans weren’t the only ones who felt obliged to applaud sentiments that don’t exactly line up with their public policy views.
Though the pope shied away from any explicit mention of abortion in his congressional address, he left no doubt where he stood when he referred to the importance of protecting human life “at every stage of its development.”
But Francis’s allusion to his staunch opposition to abortion drew just about everyone, including the assembled Democrats, to their feet—minus Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Tim Kaine, who applauded politely from their seats.
And he followed that up by stating his firm opposition to the death penalty. At least one member heard him loud and clear there; Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Brooklyn Democrat, yelled out, “Wooo!” as soon as he mentioned his stance on the issue.
But hers was the only noisy outburst. She quickly clasped her hands over her mouth, looking both amused with herself and embarrassed. Her seatmate patted her shoulder, chuckling.
Not all counter-intuitive ovations were an accident.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota who is in favor of reproductive rights, also stood applauding when the pope mentioned his views on life. But Ellison said he had heard the pope clearly.
“I stood up, I heard perfectly what he had to say, I do believe in a woman’s right to make reproductive choices, but I still believe in life,” he said. “Why does the right wing claim life? When did they get a monopoly on life?”
Ellison added, “He talked about a consistent life ethic up to and including people who are on death row. He talked about refugees. People who stand for a woman’s right to make a reproductive choice are not against the unborn.”
Those less attuned to the pope’s words found themselves frustrated because they often had trouble making out exactly what he was saying, but that didn’t stop them from erring on the side of cheering.
“You had to be an active, active listener to hear him,” said Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa. “He’s very soft-spoken, for starters. His English—he tried very hard. But it was difficult to hear him.”
“I may have got a third of it,” he added, chuckling.
As The Daily Beast’s Barbie Nadeau noted, the speech was classic Francis—touching on themes he has repeatedly referenced at his stops around Washington and around the world: care for the poor, the elderly, immigrants, and the environment.
So the largely progressive message shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas was hesitant to comment on the speech at all because he had so much trouble making out what the pontiff said.
“Yes, there was an accent,” he said. “But they did not have the microphones turned up loud enough. And they’re going to have to do something about all the DSLRs clicking. You can put those cameras on silent mode, and the photographers need to do that.”
(In fairness, the loud clicking of camera lenses in the press gallery also made it a little tricky for your correspondent to make out everything the pope said. )
Rep. Pete Sessions, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, said he too struggled to make out everything the pope said.
“We had a difficult time,” he said. “We could hear the beginning of some thoughts and concepts, or the end, but not the whole concept.”
Sessions added, though, that he made out enough of what the pope said to disagree with him on the Golden Rule’s applicability to immigration policy.
“That holds very little water to me,” he said. “But the problem is, I’m from Texas.”
Outside the chamber, pilgrims who traveled to D.C. to see the pontiff seemed much less confused about his words.
Starting before dawn, the faithful lined up patiently by the thousands to pass through metal gates and magnetometers. They then waited for hours on the West Lawn on the Capitol in quiet meditation in anticipation of the pope’s address.
“Here’s what I like about the pope,” added Chelsea Moubarak, 24, “People tend to point to the pope as liberal or conservative…but he is emphasizing the core facts of the church: love, humility, and universal care for everyone, which is where these political issues come it—those in and of itself are political.”
Many of the people on the west lawn were inspired to wake up early Thursday and trudge to the U.S. Capitol because of the pope’s well-publicized penchant for serving the poor: visiting prisons, embracing the sick, washing the feet of the poor.
“His outreach to every single person: rich, poor, sick, healthy, believers and non-believers—he reached out in such a wonderful, caring embrace, [talking with concern] for the unborn, for the criminals, for those in countries whose lives are in peril due to a lack of religious freedom,” said Cookie Freire, 68.
“My parents would kill me if I didn’t take the opportunity. I wanted to see what this progressive pope is all about,” said Megan Ryan, 31. “And you can tell your boss you’ll be late [for work]! He said, ‘I can’t in good conscience keep you from seeing His Holiness.”
Excitement came in waves for the crowd. But the loudest applause from outside the chamber came when the pope referred to the public's “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
“It’s inspiring leadership,” said Paul W., 31. “Most of his positions on the issues are for the fair treatment of the people, the fair treatment of the planet, trying to move everybody forward.”
When Pope Francis at last appeared at the Speaker’s Balcony to observe his massive flock, a huge cheer went up on the lawn.
As House Speaker John Boehner began to weep beside him, Pope Francis first motioned to his translator to join him.
“Buenos dias!” he said. “I am so grateful for your presence here!”