Pope Calls for Action on Climate Change in White House Visit

Getty Images

Pope Francis said in his opening remarks to the United States on the White House lawn that climate change is an urgent matter that "can no longer be left to a future generation."

Francis waded into that hot-button political issue after President Barack Obama and a crowd of thousands welcomed him Wednesday morning. Later, the pope took part in a parade around the Ellipse, the park south of the White House, and attended a prayer service with bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle where he lauded U.S. bishops for their response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

In this speech at the White House Wednesday morning, the pope praised Obama for focusing on the environment and the need to cut air pollution, calling it "encouraging."

"We are living at a critical moment of history," he said. "We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about "a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change."

Francis cast climate change as a peril to what he called our "common home" in a speech that also called for safeguarding religious liberty and rejecting discrimination.

After his speech, Francis waved to the crowd from the Truman Balcony, president to his left and the first lady to his right.

He then met with the president privately, part of a full day in Washington. 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, the White House said. He also gave pope a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint, the White House said. This year marks the 40th anniversary of her canonization.

Later in the morning, Francis greeted crowds along the Ellipse, the park south of the White House, where thousands lined up early in the morning to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. 

"It was awesome, I just wanted to be in his presence," Mary Groves said. "It was worth standing here since 7:30."

The pope was seen kissing babies and young children who were plucked out of the crowd and brought to the pontiff's popemobile. 

The pope arrived at the White House heralded by the call of bugles and snappy salutes. Under sunny skies, the crowd of invited guests, military personnel and officials gathered for remarks by Obama and the pope. The president and his wife, Michelle, greeted him when he emerged from his Fiat, his modest vehicle of choice.

"Our backyard is not typically this crowded – but the size and spirit of today’s gathering is just a small reflection of the deep devotion of some 70 million American Catholics…and the way your message of love and hope has inspired so many people, across our nation and around the world," Obama said in his opening remarks to the pope. 

Obama said the pope is "shaking us out of complacency" with constant reminder to care for the poor and the powerless.

"I believe the excitement around your visit must be attributed not only to your role as pope, but to your unique qualities as a person."

The president also thanked the pope for his "invaluable support" in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and for his "call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy."

Following the parade, the pope headed to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for a worship service with America's bishops. In a speech there, the pope praised the bishops for what he called their "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" of sexual abuse by clergy. He praised them for having courage and acting, as he saw it, "without fear of self-criticism."

The clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the U.S. in 2002 and turned into the biggest crisis in the history of the American church. Under enormous public pressure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to oust any guilty clergy from church work and enact safeguards for children.

However, the scandal persists, and victims say the bishops still haven't fully accounted for sheltering abusers. This year, three bishops resigned in crises over their failures to protect children.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) blasted pope's comments, saying, "We're sad that Francis claims U.S. bishops have shown 'courage' in the abuse crisis. Almost without exception, they have shown cowardice and callousness and continue to do so now. They offer excuses, exploit legal technicalities and hide behind expensive lawyers and public relations professionals, hardly the marks of courage."

The statement continued: "We're also sad that Francis can't bring himself to call this crisis what it is - not "difficult moments in recent history," but the continuing cover up of clergy child sex crimes by almost the entire church hierarchy.'

At the top of his remarks to the bishops, Pope Francis issued special greetings to the Jewish community in the U.S. for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews.

Speaking in Italian, Francis said: "May the Lord bless them with peace and may they continue with a life of holiness."

Before leaving for the White House, Pope Francis took his time greeting schoolchildren outside the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington where he spent the night.

The children hugged him, took picture and waved Holy See flags. They were dressed to the nines, some in school uniforms. The pope lingered in conversation with some, and patted heads. One student, Enija Davidonyte managed to grab a selfie with Pope Francis, which she posted to Facebook. 

"I feel absolutely blessed! I met with Pope Francis today and actually got to take a picture and meet him. If it wasn't for my Lithuanian school and Monsignor Rolandas I don't think I would have experienced this once-in-a-lifetime moment," she said in her caption. 

Aside from his bodyguards, Francis is accompanied by Monsignor Mark Miles, his trusty English translator, but he didn't seem to need his services.

Minutes before Pope Francis was to arrive, Obama tweeted a welcome message to him.

"Welcome to the White House, @Pontifex!" Obama said.

From the instant the white-robed and broad-grinned Francis landed in the U.S. on Tuesday, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and got into a modest, charcoal-gray Fiat, his visit electrified wonky 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 United States.

People of all faiths wanted to be a part of it, from the hundreds on hand for his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base to the clumps of spectators outside the diplomatic mission where the pope was staying.

"These moments matter," said May Lynne Duncan, who battled traffic from suburban Virginia to bring her two daughters to stand outside the Apostolic Nunciature.

There were the 15,000 people expected at Wednesday's White House arrival ceremony. About 300 to 400 people stood in line when security opened at 4 a.m. to see the pope from the Ellipse behind the White House, NBC News reported. Security agents were screening the masses, which have since grown.

For all of the oh-wow enthusiasm attending the visit, the pope and the president, with overlapping but far-from-identical agendas, had serious matters to attend to.

Even before he arrived for his first U.S. visit, Francis was fending off conservative criticism of his economic views. He told reporters on his flight from Cuba that some people may have an inaccurate impression that he is "a little bit more left-leaning."

"I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church," he said.

As for conservatives who question whether he is truly Catholic, he added jokingly, "If I have to recite the Creed, I'm ready."

Obama was anxious to add oomph to his own efforts to combat climate change, fight income inequality and promote social justice, among other things, by finding common cause with the pope. The two differ sharply on other issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

From Francis' vantage point, his next stop after the White House was perhaps more critical. The 78-year-old pontiff was meeting with America's 450-strong bishops' conference at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Many U.S. bishops have struggled to come to terms with Francis' new social justice-minded direction of the church. Nearly all were appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They prioritized drawing clearer boundaries for Catholic behavior and belief in the face of legalized abortion, advances in gay rights and the exodus of so many Westerners from organized religion.

The American church spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year through its social service agencies, and for years has sought an overhaul of the immigration system to reunite families, shelter refugees and give the poor the chance at a better life. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has increasingly put its resources behind high-profile fights over abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

Outside the Cathedral of Matthew the Apostle protesters from the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests were planning an act of civil disobedience to draw attention to their mission of getting female priests ordained within the church. The Catholic church does not currently ordain female's as priests. 

The first pope from the Americas also was acting Wednesday to canonize a Spanish friar who brought the Catholic faith to California.

Francis was to celebrate the Mass of canonization for Junipero Serra in Spanish. Several thousand of the 25,000 tickets to the event were set aside for Spanish-speaking people, many from California. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception erected a temporary sanctuary on the east portico for the Mass.

On Thursday, Francis planned to deliver the first papal address ever to Congress, speaking to Republican-majority legislators deeply at odds with Obama on issues such as gay rights, immigration, abortion and climate change. Those same issues are roiling the early months of the presidential campaign.

For all the focus on Francis' speeches, his less scripted moments in meeting with immigrants, prisoners and the homeless could prove more memorable.

He was expected to meet with poor immigrants and other clients of Catholic Charities in Washington and with prisoners in Pennsylvania. He also is known to veer off schedule for unscripted encounters.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us