September 28 2015

There was an incredible buildup of excitement leading up to Pope Francis’s visit. From social media to the news on TV, everyone was talking about his visit. Walking down the street in D.C. you could see posters, bus shelter ads, Pope paraphernalia everywhere you turned. The culmination of the enthusiasm for the Pope’s visit to the United States could have not be more palpable than at the West Steps of the United States Capitol and I felt humbled to be there to witness it. A crowd of tens of thousands hung on every word of his address to Congress, with only cheers and applause breaking the silence.

People were jubilant and brought to tears by the Pope’s words because as he stood in the chambers, he was speaking to them and for them. He reminded Congress of their responsibility to serve and protect the people they represent, especially the most vulnerable. Pope Francis was deliberate in his message about compassion, inclusion and equality.

His words were profound and deep. It was hard not to be moved; hard not to feel connected to the thousands of others on the Capitol grounds – even though we were all strangers to each other. We were united in solidarity because we all yearn for the response, “of hope and healing, of peace and justice” about which Pope Francis spoke about. His visit comes at a time when our country and our world is witnessing overwhelming violence and intolerance.

There were many moments of celebration during his speech, but most surprising was that the loudest cheers came when he spoke about the stranger, the immigrant. He identified himself as a son of immigrants and recognized that many of us were also descendants of immigrants. His words that shook me to the core were, “Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. 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.”

He referred to the historic refugee crisis in Europe and the image of the drowned 3-year-old Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, immediately flashed through my mind. We cannot allow such tragedies and injustices to exist. I applaud Pope Francis for not letting us forget this.

I also connected what he said to what our country is experiencing with its immigrant population. Our country has struggled with immigration reform for far too long, and meanwhile, countless families have been mistreated, torn apart and cast to the shadows. It is unfortunate that the negative narrative about undocumented individuals seems to be intensifying as events are turned political and presidential candidates jockey to make it their platform.

As a daughter of parents who came to this country from Mexico to work hard and build a better life for their children, and as an advocate who has worked to serve vulnerable populations, including the undocumented, the degree of my appreciation for his remarks and recognition of the immigrant population cannot be measured.

Maricela proudly wearing her #Health4All t-shirt in honor of  Pope Francis.
Maricela proudly wearing her #Health4All t-shirt in honor of Pope Francis.

For the past few years I have helped lead the #Health4All campaign and drive a dialogue to move our health care system to one that is inclusive of everyone, regardless of immigration status. I’m proud to represent The California Endowment when I say we believe health care is a basic human right. We cannot benefit from the contributions of our undocumented neighbors and at the same time deny them the very services they pay into. I do give credit to our policy and political leaders in California for their growing will to address many of the issues facing undocumented Californians, but there is much more work to do.

Pope Francis spoke about other key issues, including the need to support families and create economic opportunities for them. To serve the poor and care for the most vulnerable. To care for our environment and protect nature. We all gain and benefit when we do this. The most moving moment for me was when he walked out onto the balcony to address and thank the crowd. He stated that the most important ones in the audience were the children and prayed to God to bless them and their families. As a mother of a 2-year-old son, I now understand that our primary responsibility is to create a better world for our children.

To have experienced this amazing moment, and then to hear critics claim Pope Francis’s calls to lift human life and dignity were politically motivated, deeply troubled me. The issues he raised are not about politics—they are about people. Whether or not you are a person of faith, the Golden Rule is simply about building a more just and compassionate society.

I hope that Pope Francis’s visit leads to change and that the dialogue the Pope ignited didn’t just land on deaf ears. We were all a part of this moment, whether you were in the chamber, on the grounds or watched it. We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to care for one another. The fight for health and justice for all continues and I pray that Pope Francis’s visit has reenergized and recommitted us to this mission.


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