Obama, Pope Francis praise each other on climate change
President Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the White House during the first full day of the pontiff's first trip to the United States.
WASHINGTON — Amid the pageantry of Pope Francis' visit to the White House, President Obama received a rare papal endorsement Wednesday of his action to stem climate change and tackle other global challenges.
"Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example," Obama said during a welcome ceremony that drew thousands of people to the South Lawn. "And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency."
In thanking the president, Francis offered a forceful endorsement of his host's proposals "for reducing air pollution" and described climate change as "a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation."
Referring to the planet Earth, Francis said that "when it comes to the care of our 'common home,' we are living at a critical moment of history."
The pope, who has criticized aspects of capitalism, also urged a serious examination "not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them."
Citing U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Francis claimed that "we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note, and now is the time to honor it." Making his first extended speech in English, the pontiff said that American Catholics "are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination."
As he prepares to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Francis said he will speak to lawmakers "as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles."
After the 40-minute ceremony, the president and the pope walked into the White House residence and then along the Rose Garden colonnade to the Oval Office, where they held a private meeting.
Afterward, the White House issued a list of "shared values and commitments" discussed by Obama and Francis. It included calls to help refugees from war-torn Syria, protect religious minorities in the Middle East, improve U.S-Cuban relations, provide opportunities for at-risk youth, promote sustainable development, and end poverty.
Obama also gave the pontiff a pair of gifts: A metal sculpture of an ascending dove, the international symbol of peace; and a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mother Seton's canonization. The key dates from 1809.
In his remarks on the South Lawn, Obama praised the pope while referencing his calls to help immigrants and refugees, protect religious liberty, and improve U.S. relations with Cuba (site of the pope's first stop on his trip).
The president told Francis that "we support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to changing climate, and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations."
More than 11,000 people swarmed the South Lawn to welcome the pontiff. Many guests had lined up at checkpoints around the White House complex well before 3 a.m. The crowd packed the entire South Lawn, with another large group across the street on the Ellipse.
As the crowd awaited the pope, a red-jacketed Marine Band played martial music, a color guard carried the U.S. and Vatican flags, and military trumpeters positioned themselves on the portico of the White House.
Vice President Biden, wife Jill Biden, and Cabinet members streamed toward a seating section close to a small stage .
Among the guests: Ethel Kennedy, widow of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the former U.S. attorney general and brother of the late president John F. Kennedy.
Light blue-and-white Argentine flags and soccer jerseys dotted the south lawn as people celebrated the arrival of the Argentine pope with rosaries, crosses and U.S. and Vatican flags. A few had seats on bleachers erected for the occasion, but most stood for hours waiting for the pope.
Jeffrey Richardson, who lined up outside the White House at 2 a.m. in order to get a front-row standing position, wore an Argentinian soccer jersey that belonged to his gay partner before he died of cancer in 2005.
"He was Argentine, and he was born and raised Catholic, but he drifted away from the church — I think he'd be encouraged by the pope's message," said Richardson, 37, of Washington.
That message includes an attention to issues of poverty, he said, but also making the church more open. "We have a long way to go, clearly," he said.
Richardson, who is not Catholic, said Francis's visit was "more personal, more spiritual, than political" to him.
Amid heavy security in a long motorcade, the small Fiat that served as the Popemobile rolled up to the south entrance to the White House shortly after 9:20 a.m.
As the crowd cheered and screamed Francis' name, Obama attributed the frenzy to both the pope's stature and his "unique qualities" as a person.
"In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in 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," Obama said.
In his remarks on the South Lawn, Obama reminded Francis he is the first pope from the Americas, making his first visit to the United States, as well as "the first pontiff to share an Encyclical through a Twitter account." (Francis is also the third pope to visit the White House.)
The ceremony resembled the White House welcomes for other world leaders, complete with both national anthems and military marching to fife-and-drum music. One departure at this particular event: The leaders did not do a troop review, seeing as how the Pope controls no armed forces.
"Our backyard is not typically this crowded," Obama said in his remarks. "But the size and spirit of today's gathering is just a small reflection of the deep devotion of some 70 million American Catholics."