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Pope's Speech To Congress Moves Kansas City Catholics At Rockhurst University

Laura Ziegler
Seniors from Bishop Miege High School pose with a cutout of the pontiff at Rockhurst University before a telecast of his speech to Congress.

As the nation's Capitol was humming with activity around the pope's visit, Catholics in Kansas City came together Thursday at Rockhurst University to watch the historic address to a joint session of Congress. 

A large crowd gathered in the auditorium of Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Hall on the Rockhurst campus. Students, faculty and staff, and members of the community watched the pope on two large screens at the front of the hall, applauding vigorously almost every time they saw Congress clap. There was also a giant screen feeding live tweets from around the country.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR
Students, faculty, and members of the community from parishes citywide watched the telecast of the pope's speech to Congress at Rockhurst University.

Before the event, Alex Piening, a Rockhurst sophomore from St. Louis, said he was looking to see if the pope could really communicate with lawmakers.

“Often, in politics, it’s hard to get changes and communication between different parties," he said.  "I’d like to see if the pope can get a message across to Congress and Congress actually hearing that message — challenging their thinking.”

Civil engineering student Kristina Hammerquist, from Rapid City, South Dakota,  said she was involved with the environmental club at Rockhurst and was excited to hear the pope’s remarks on that topic. 

“Just hearing what he thinks we should do is, like, awesome, because we can get extra input and bring it back to the club," she said.

There was a celebratory atmosphere in the lobby as people waited to go into the "Pope2Congress" event, one of 350 around the country.

The national social justice organization, IgnatianSolidarity, organized the nationwide watch parties.

I spoke with Executive Director Chirs Kerr Wednesday as he walked the security laden streets of Washington D.C. after one of the pope’s public addresses. He said the goal of the watch parties was, in part, to help people understand the social mission of the Catholic Church and to feel part of the experience of the Pope’s address to Congress.

“We want people to ask themselves ‘how does this pope impact me?’” Kerr said. “Some watch parties are doing voter registration, trying to get people involved. We’re watching to see if legislators are or are not going to be acting on the pope’s message.”

Back at Rockhurst, the auditorium erupted into applause as the crowd watched the pontiff walk down the aisle to stand at a podium before the joint houses of Congress, something no pope has ever done before.

After the telecast, I caught up with the same students I’d talked to before the speech.

Alex Piening said he was most moved by the pope’s remarks charging Congress to address inequality.

“In America, we see a gap between the working people, the people trying to just ‘bring home the daily bread’ as he said, and the people who are making the laws," Piening said. “I think it was almost a challenge to Congress to bridge that gap to make some changes for those people having the hard time.”

It's not an overstatement to say that Kristina Hammerquist came out awash with joy and enthusiasm.

“I am speechless,” she beamed. “It was incredible. People were so emotional, I don’t even know what to say.”

The Pope’s message about the human dignity moved her.

“I am part of a pro- life group at Rockhurst, and so I like to think I’m an activist in that sense," she said of what she took away from the morning. 

The Rev. Mark Lewis, director of Catholic studies at Rockhurst, said even though he was relatively new in town, he believed the pope’s message would be particularly important for the Kansas City Catholic community, still divided over the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR
The Rev. Mark Lewis, director of Catholic studies at Rockurst University, said the pope's message of healing could have particular resonance among Kansas City Catholics.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion after his talk," he said. “This pope is very keen for dialogue to happen, we have to be able to listen as well as speak, and I think this is going to be an important part of that healing process here.”

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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