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 a crowd of thousands and a nation that seemingly cannot get enough of the humble pontiff 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 healthcare mandate and the recent Supreme Court legalisation of same-sex marriage.
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.”
Obama 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. He also thanked the pontiff for his support for efforts to normalise 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.
The pope later spoke to America’s bishops, an address that was highly anticipated given a certain disconnect between Francis’ focus on social justice and a merciful church and the culture wars that America’s bishops have waged in recent years over abortion and gay rights.
From the instant the white-robed and grinning Francis landed in the US on Tuesday, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and clambered into his charcoal-grey Fiat, his visit has electrified Washington, which can be jaded about the comings and goings of world figures.
Washington was the first stop on the Pope’s six-day, three-city visit to the US.