At an elaborate ceremony at the White House officially marking the start of his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis on Wednesday tackled some of the most contentious issues in American politics in remarks addressing global warming, immigration and income equality.
Standing on an outdoor stage festooned with red, white and blue bunting, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church praised the United States as a nation of immigrants and endorsed President Barack Obama’s controversial program to fight climate change.
“When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history,” he said slowly in accented English. “We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”
Obama formally welcomed the pontiff to the United States early Wednesday at a formal White House event attended by thousands in which the president said Americans were inspired by the pope’s message of love and hope.
“I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as pope, but to your unique qualities as a person,” Obama said.
“In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.”
All across the nation’s capital, people bundled up against a cool fall morning filled streets awaiting the pope’s first remarks and subsequent ride while standing in a open-air popemobile along a parade route around the Ellipse near the Washington Monument.
“People don’t necessarily just see him as a religious figure, that he’s come so much into politics,” said Natalie Ortiz, a student at George Washington University. “He’s not just talking about, ‘Oh everyone praise God,’ but he’s talking about things that matter. Because he knows he’s so influential, he’s using that to promote things that actually matter like politics, climate change.”
“It was fantastic, and I think he’s making people on the right uncomfortable and people on the left uncomfortable, and I think that’s what a faith leader needs to do is to call all of us to a higher standard,” said Lonnie Ellis, associate director at Catholic Climate Covenant. “I think he was doing that.”
About 11,000 ticketed guests waving Papal and American flags filled the South Lawn of the White House, some arriving as early as 5 a. m. At least one video screen was provided to show the words of the speeches for those who could not hear. The crowd was largely polite with people agreeing to switch places with one another to allow shorter people to see better.
“As son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country,” Francis said.
He made only a passing mention of other hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage, saying he supports “the institutions of marriage and the family at this critical moment in the history of our civilization.”
“As a Catholic who’s been waiting for a pope like this all of his life, I was in awe. I was just in complete awe,” said Steve Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats, an advocacy organization, who waited in line for five hours.
“It was just such an amazing day, a day I will never forget. Nobody has made me cry my entire life more than the pope in terms of how he consistently moves me, but also when watching him move other people.”
Francis told reporters traveling with him on his flight to the United States Tuesday that he was not aligned with any particular political movement though critics call him “liberal.”
“I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said. “I follow the church, and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and was among the politicians in attendance at the White House, said in an interview with CNN that Francis has a “very, very progressive agenda.
“He is saying that as a planet, as a people, we have got to do better,” Sanders said, adding that Francis has preached that the “accumulation of money, that worship of money, is not what life should be about, that we cannot turn our backs on our fellow human beings.”
As if to underscore a message of humility, Francis arrived at the White House in a modest dark grey Fiat 500L. The Obamas and Francis shook hands and smiled broadly.
Outside the White House, protesters gathered on the edge of the cut-off streets holdings signs “Pope Francis: Ordain women” and “Francis: Please Ordain Women Priests.”
After the ceremony, Obama and Francis met privately in the Oval Office, using a Vatican translator.
Obama presented the pope with a sculpture of an ascending dove, an international symbol of peace as well as the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, which included an original armature bar from the Statue of Liberty and a personalized inscription for the occasion. He also gave him a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint.
After meeting with Obama inside the White House, the pontiff visited the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle to pray with several hundred bishops before celebrating a 4:15 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
On Thursday, Francis will make the first address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress before appearing on the balcony of the West Front of the Capitol to greet a crowd in the tens of thousands.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. announced Wednesday that he is circulating a letter to his colleagues to nominate Francis as the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for his commitment to peace, his leadership in climate change and stand for human rights.
The pope also plans stops in Philadelphia and New York, where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly and multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
“Pope Francis emphasizes building bridges and raising hope. In his first speech he clearly reached out to both liberals and conservatives,” said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, a religious development coalition founded by a call from Pope John Paul II. “As his visit continues, I expect him to connect his poverty message to specific economic policies. He’s been specific on the need to change debt, tax and trade policies that perpetuate poverty around the globe.”
Lesley Clark and Victoria Whitley contributed.