Jesuit Ties to Pope Francis Provide Rep. Vargas With Insight
When Rep. Juan C. Vargas attends Pope Francis’ address to Congress next week, it won’t be his first time in the pontiff’s presence.
The California Democrat arranged to meet briefly with the pope in August 2014 in Rome and a photo from their encounter serves as the background on Vargas' cell phone. The two men also share a deep bond: Vargas is a former member of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic order whose members include Francis.
Five years in the order and decades of devotion to Jesuit ideals have given Vargas a good idea of what the leader of the Catholic Church could focus on during his Sept. 24 address to Congress.
“Knowing him, knowing the way the Jesuits are, he’s not going to say ‘pass this five point plan,’ ” Vargas told CQ Roll Call. “He’s going to talk about other things that are really important in the context of ‘love the poor. ‘ ”
The most effective way for the pope to inspire change in Congress is not through a policy-driven message but an emotional appeal, Vargas said. The issues Francis has advocated for — from reducing the impact of climate change to helping those in poverty — can be summed up by a Bible passage from Matthew 25:35-40.
Vargas can recite a version from memory: “When I was a stranger, you invited me in, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was sick, you healed me. When you did it to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
“That really will have the biggest impact,” he said.
The Jesuit Way
Vargas left the Jesuits after five years. He got married, attended Harvard Law School and was classmates with President Barack Obama, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress the first time in 1992 before entering into local public office.
The Jesuit influence still is evident in the co-chair of the House Prayer Breakfast. His guests to Pope Francis’ address of Congress are Jesuit priests. There are four Bibles in his office, some heavily bookmarked. And, Vargas says, he prays for the pope daily.
Francis arrives for his first-ever U.S. visit on Sept. 22 and his schedule includes a Mass on Sept. 23. In a letter to the pope last month, Vargas and a dozen other lawmakers who attended Jesuit colleges and universities welcomed Francis to Washington and reiterated the Jesuit commitment to the “vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community.”
“These things stick with you, ” Vargas said. “That’s why I think he is going to say all these things. It’s the way of the Jesuit.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Vargas was moved as a Jesuit by his work with Central American women and children who had escaped violence in their home countries and landed homeless on skid row.
Vargas was then sent to a war zone in El Salvador to guard an orphanage of about 100 children. He had no weapons to protect himself or the children, just an American passport in hopes militants would not want to risk aid from the United States.
“I was armed with Jesus,” he said.
As a member of Congress, Vargas continues to support immigrants and refugees. He fasted for a day in 2013 to encourage lawmakers in the House to pass a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill that passed in the Senate. In March, he held an information session on Obama's deferred deportation programs for those in his southern San Diego district, which runs the length of California’s border with Mexico.
In April, Vargas introduced legislation (HR 1568) to expedite processing for Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the Islamic State who want to come to the United States. The bipartisan bill has 31 co-sponsors, including 11 Republicans.
“The stories you hear from the people there and the people able to make it here are horrifying,” he said. “We ought to help, we need to do more. . . . That’s what I hope the pope says.”
A Kind Critique
Vargas anticipates Francis will highlight how the United States falls short.
“He’s going to say you guys have been gifted,” Vargas said of Pope Francis. “God gave you guys a lot, a lot is expected of you. Live up to those expectations.”
A lot is expected of the pope’s address as well. Environmental and pro-immigration advocacy groups, as well as Capital workers asking for higher wages, are looking for support on their issues. While Vargas considers himself a progressive Democrat, he knows Pope Francis’ message will be nonpartisan.
“He’s not here to beat up on the Republicans. I don’t think he’s here to beat up on the Democrats,” he said. “He’s here to express God’s love.”
Vargas is one of 169 Roman Catholics in Congress. For the full list, see CQ Roll Call's Members database.