JUMPING into the issues of the day, Pope Francis opened his visit to the United States with a strong call yesterday for action to combat climate change, calling it a problem that “can no longer be left to a future generation”.
President Barack Obama, in turn, hailed the pontiff as a moral force who is “shaking us out of our complacency” with reminders to care for the poor and the planet.
The White House mustered all the pageantry it had to offer as the Pope arrived at the White House before an enthusiastic crowd of thousands and a nation that seemingly cannot get enough of the man who is rejuvenating American Catholicism while giving heartburn to some of its conservatives.
Speaking in a soft voice and halting English, Francis delivered a strong message against those who doubt the science of climate change, saying that the warming planet “demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition” of conditions awaiting today’s children.
It was a message sure to delight the Obama White House, and liberals in general, but the pope’s message had something for conservatives, too, with a pointed call to protect religious liberties – “one of America’s most precious possessions”.
“All are called to be vigilant,’ he said, “to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
That message was sure to be welcomed by many US bishops and conservatives who have objected to the Obama administration’s health care mandate and the recent Supreme Court legalisation of same-sex marriage. With flags snapping, colour guard at attention and a military band’s brassy marches, the Pope stepped from his modest Fiat on to the South Lawn on a crisp auutmn morning that felt as optimistic as his own persona. Pope and president stood on a red-carpeted platform bedecked with red, white and blue bunting, standing to attention for the national anthems of the Hole See and the United States.
Just before the pope arrived, Obama had tweeted to the Holy Father: “Welcome to the White House, @Pontifex! Your messages of love, hope, and peace have inspired us all.”
Obama, joking that his backyard is not typically so crowded, told the Pope that the excitement surrounding his visit was a reflection of Francis’ unique qualities, mentioning “your humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit.”
The president singled out the Pope’s call for focusing on the poor and the marginalised, including refugees fleeing war and immigrants in search of a better life. The president also thanked the Pope for his support for efforts to improve relations between the US and Cuba.
After opening remarks on the lawn, the two leaders headed inside to the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting where each hoped to find common cause with the other on issues they hold dear.