President Barack Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the White House Wednesday morning for the pontiff’s first official meeting in the U.S.
Both leaders emphasized the centrality of religious freedom to American values — one which U.S. Catholic leaders are insisting on as the nation debates moral and legal issues, including same-sex marriage and late-term abortion. Obama particularly highlighted Francis’ solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. (RELATED: Pope Francis’ New Accessory Is The Cross Of A Beheaded Iraqi Priest)
Francis said that we are living in “a critical moment for our civilization,” emphasizing his agreement with American bishops as they continue to fight for their Church’s right to act undisturbed. He also dwelled on climate change, calling the earth “our common home” and insisting on “conscious and responsible” behavior in its defense.
In greeting Francis, Obama emphasized that in his ministry, Francis is “shaking us out of our complacency.” He attributed the excitement surrounding Francis’ visit not only to his “role as pope” but to his “unique qualities as a person” — his humility and his emphasis on God’s mercy. (RELATED: Reporters Asked Pope Francis About Being Communist. Here’s What He Said.)
Obama also made mention of “welcoming the stranger” with “compassion and love,” pointing to shared views between him and Francis on immigration and refugee issues. And he thanked the pontiff for his role in brokering normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Francis introduced himself as “the son of an immigrant family,” from Italy to Argentina, pointing out that the U.S. is also a nation of immigrants.
As though to make up for Obama’s delay in greeting him Tuesday, before departing for the White House, Francis lingered among the crowd outside the apostolic nunciature (the Vatican’s embassy-level residence in Washington) for approximately five minutes. He hugged schoolchildren, gave blessings, and indulged a few selfies. (RELATED: Pope Francis’ Plane Circled In The Air Because Obama Was Late)
Later Wednesday, Francis is scheduled to make a short parade along the National Mall, where he may once again stop to greet members of the public. He will then pray with and address U.S. Catholic bishops. In the afternoon, he will celebrate a mass formally recognizing the Spanish missionary Junípero Serra as a saint, becoming the first pope to canonize a saint on American soil.
Francis will address Congress Thursday. He will travel to New York Friday and visit Philadelphia Saturday and Sunday.
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