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Pope Address Has Special Significance for John Lewis

Lewis, D-Ga., top center, and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., listen Thursday as Pope Francis addresses Congress (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Lewis, D-Ga., top center, and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., listen Thursday as Pope Francis addresses Congress (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For many members, the pope’s address to Congress on Thursday was a historic moment. But for one member, in one moment, the joint meeting with Pope Francis had particular meaning.  

Civil rights icon John Lewis told CQ Roll Call the pope’s address was especially moving to him — in part because the Vatican leader seemed to make a special effort to recognize the struggle for civil rights in the United States. In his speech, the pope said his visit came at a time of marking anniversaries for “several great Americans.”  

“A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity,” the pope said, as members surrounding Lewis — Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.; Terri Sewell, D-Ala.; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — started slapping the Georgia Democrat on the back. “These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”  

“I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton,” Francis said.  

Lewis told CQ Roll Call he teared up during that brief recognition of the civil rights movement, particularly because there was an element of cosmic serendipity to it.  

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, law enforcement officials violently confronted marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., beating demonstrators so badly that the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”  

Lewis told CQ Roll Call that in his backpack on that day was a book by Merton, the 20th-century American Catholic and social activist. Lewis would eventually cross the bridge with King and others as part of the historic, 50-plus mile trek from Selma to Montgomery from March 21-25, 1965.  

Lewis said he didn’t know what happened to that book — he didn’t even say which book it was — but Francis spoke extensively about Merton on Thursday, and he quoted a particularly poignant passage from the Cistercian monk’s autobiography.

‘I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.’

It was an extraordinary coincidence, perhaps, but for Lewis, it seemed to be something more.

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