With the Pope’s Visit, Congress Has Opportunity to Think Big Again | Commentary

Posted September 23, 2015 at 8:44am

As our economy continues to recover and more Americans are getting back on their feet, many families are still struggling and worried about the future. Income inequality, poverty and hunger continue to be among the greatest challenges we face today and for too many families, these are holding them back from achieving their dreams.

With the visit of Pope Francis to Washington this week, I hope my fellow members of Congress will be inspired by his call to tackle these issues. Americans are eager for bold leadership and big ideas. Francis’ address to Congress is an opportunity for us to put politics aside and come together to build an economy where everyone has the opportunity to succeed and no one is forgotten.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador for the beatification of the slain Archbishop Óscar Romero, an outspoken critic of social injustice and political repression who was assassinated in 1980 on the eve of the country’s civil war.

In my own career in public service, I was inspired by my friendship with the Jesuits in El Salvador in the 1980s. They taught me that faith is nothing without action and that our action must be aimed at standing with and helping those who are the least among us. As Francis reminds us, “a good Catholic meddles in politics.”

As a witness to Archbishop Romero’s beatification, the final step before he becomes a saint, I saw firsthand the impact Francis is already making. By clearing the way for the church to immediately beatify Romero, Francis sent a powerful message that he shares the values at the heart of Romero’s work to lift up the poor and give a voice to the voiceless. Standing with the hundreds of thousands in attendance, you could feel the gratitude.

Just months after being chosen to lead the Catholic Church, Francis called for world leaders to do more to tackle poverty, saying, “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children” and that poverty is so widespread.

In America, the reality is poverty and hunger are far more common than many people realize. Today, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty, including close to 15 million children and more than 4 million seniors. Just as alarming, close to 50 million Americans struggle with hunger, including nearly 16 million children. These are not just numbers. These are our friends, families and neighbors. And we are obligated — indeed the Bible commands us — to feed the hungry.

Our country has a proud history of leaders with the courage to take on the great challenges each generation has faced. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal tackled the Great Depression by creating Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration and a host of public works programs that helped to strengthen American families, put people back to work and rebuild our economy.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society created some of our country’s most effective anti-poverty programs, such as Head Start, food stamps, work study, and Medicare and Medicaid. These programs helped families put food on the table, expanded access to health care and early education, and gave students work opportunities to help them pay for a college education.

These are legacies that Americans can be proud of because they helped to lift millions of families out of poverty and build a brighter future for our country. These programs were rooted in the simple belief that we are strongest when we all share in a growing economy.

In the decades since these programs were created, we’ve lost some of the American spirit that helped to drive so much of our country’s progress. As more and more families see their incomes stagnate and the American Dream become harder to reach, today’s Congress seems less interested in taking on the great challenges we face.

Instead, we are plagued by partisan gridlock and are currently just days away from yet another government shutdown. We need leaders committed to working together on bipartisan solutions that truly address income inequality and so many of the other challenges our country faces.

So as thousands gather in Washington this week to hear the message of the pope, I sincerely hope that my fellow members of Congress will take his words to heart. Francis has set a powerful example for leaders around the world by putting the needs of the most vulnerable front and center, and by calling on all of us to tackle issues like poverty and hunger. Now is the time for us to answer the call.

Rep. Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.