U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sept. 23 (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts).

A White House Welcome Fit for a Pope

As Terry Moran of ABC News remarked today, this was a “glorious morning” for officially welcoming Pope Francis to the United States. Under a bright, sunlit and cloudless sky, over 11,000 people (according to one estimate) gathered on the White House lawn (or, as President Obama called it, “our backyard”) to give a rousing welcome to the pope as he started his very first full day on American soil.

It was a long time in coming, the visit of this pope; and everyone in Washington, D.C. was on “pope watch,” a very popular occupation on the official first day of the fall season. Everyone was happy to be there (including America’s own Associate Editor, Ashley McKinless—who tweeted a report from an almost pre-dawn White House—and Jeremy Zipple, S.J., Executive Editor for America Films, who filmed a bicyclist’s happy reaction as she recorded it all on video) and many camped out overnight so they could claim a spot along the motorcade route in the hope of catching the fleeting glimpse of the pope as he whizzed by or better yet, obtaining a chance encounter by eye contact and perhaps a friendly wave.

Everything was arranged as for a state visit: the red carpet was laid out, the Marine Band lined the Truman Balcony, ready at a trumpet’s notice to play “ruffles and flourishes” for the expected special guest as well as the assembled company. Just as suddenly when people were taking in the sights and the sounds, the papal Fiat entered the White House grounds with pope and interpreter in tow. As soon as Pope Francis got out of the car, a great cheer went up as the President and First Lady welcomed the pope to the White House. There were more cheers as everyone assembled at their places on the red carpet and prepared to listen to the national anthems of the Vatican and the United States.

Pope Francis appeared solemn looking—perhaps tired—as he stood side by side with the president as the national anthems were played. If he was tired, that would have to been expected, given the schedule he has kept ever since he left the Vatican on this long journey to Cuba and then to the United States. If he was somewhat fatigued, he could be excused for it and given a pass—after all, the pope may be infallible in terms of faith and morals, but he is also human, and blessedly so, after a journey of thousands of miles. After the colonial fife and drum corps marched past to the lively strains of “Yankee Doodle,” it was time for the welcoming remarks by the president and the response by the pope.

Standing behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal, President Obama opened by bidding everyone good morning, which earned a round of cheers. Given the friendliness and goodwill that enervated the crowd, they started to cheer nearly every sentence the president uttered. In his remarks, the president made the scriptural allusion to “what a day the Lord has made”; and the people before him didn’t need to be admonished to be joyful and be glad in this instance. Saying that the pope’s message of love and hope has “inspired many people,” the president jokingly made references to the fact that the pope has a twitter account and that his every word filters through social media. Pleasantries aside, the president’s remarks became serious and thoughtful.

While the pope listened attentively, the president noted that the excitement surrounding the first visit of the pope to the United States was not just because of the message he bore, but of the “unique qualities as a person” that he embodied; that, in effect, we see in the pope a “living example of Jesus’ teachings.” He also said to the pope: “You remind us that the world’s most powerful message is mercy.” And he paid tribute to the “role of the Catholic Church in strengthening the United States” in all it does to help all kinds of people in myriad kinds of ways, through its charitable and philanthropic works.

Then the president got into the areas of social issues that are the concerns of many, from “the cost of war” to the current discussions over the role and the meaning of religious liberty, not only at home, but around the world. Saying that “we cherish our religious liberty,” the president noted how that freedom to practice faith is troubled worldwide (and no doubt, there are those here at home who would argue just that point). Given the major topics in the world today, the president mentioned the plight of migrants and immigrants and outcasts, subjects which are contentious and confounding for society’s leaders. With all the topics the president ran through, the one he finally spoke about—and which resonated with the pope—was the recognition that the environment and our planet needed to be protected and that climate change needed to be addressed. President Obama ended is peroration by saying that the pope is “shaking us up from our complacency” and that the discomfort that may cause “is a must.” When he thanked the pope for his “great gift of hope,” the president again welcomed Pope Francis to our country.

Then it was Pope Francis’ turn to speak. Before he did, though, he took a few sips of water and put on his eyeglasses as his aide gave him his prepared remarks in response to the president’s words of welcome.

With the words, “I am happy to be a guest in your country,” Pope Francis, spoke somewhat haltingly, in accented English. He expressed his hope that he would look forward to “these days of encounter” in the United States where he would be able to share common “hopes and dreams.” His aim, he said, was to “offer words of hope and encouragement” to all the people he meets on this journey; and he pointed out the official purpose of this trip to America: the World Meeting of Families that is being held in Philadelphia, where marriage and family life is being heralded as a necessary part of modern life. He then proceeded to discuss the importance and the critical role of religious liberty in the world today. There was speculation that he was asked by the American bishops’ conference to specifically discuss this along with other important topics in the first of his messages to the American people.

Pope Francis really began to become energized when he came upon that part of his talk that concerned the subject close to his heart: the care of “our common home.” He turned toward the president and allowed how “encouraging” he found it that the president had proposals to deal with air pollution. The pope noted the serious of the matter that it must be dealt with now and not left to “future generations.” He even quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to buttress his points concerning climate change. In closing, Pope Francis urged that the vulnerable be protected. Turning toward the president once more, the pope said that he “was looking forward to these days in your country.” And with that, he concluded with the requisite “God bless America” to applause and rousing cheers.

After the remarks between pope and president were concluded, the entire company was treated to an interlude of Gospel music, provided by the St. Augustine Gospel Choir of Washington, D.C., which gave a moving rendition of “Total Praise.” (Their singing gave the Vatican’s Sistine Choir a run for their money!) It was a fitting conclusion for a memorable welcome for the pope’s first trip to America. After that, the pope and the presidential party moved indoors so as to make one more appearance before the assembled crowd on the White House lawn. Pope Francis, President Obama and the First Lady—Michele Obama—all appeared on the famed Truman Balcony to wave and to smile. After a few minutes of that, they all turned around and went inside to the Oval Office for further discussion and the usual photo-op. The official welcome ended with a rousing rendition of John Philip Sousa marches, giving the event a Fourth of July holiday feeling. The day will end for the pope after he has had a midday prayer service with over 500 bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington and then presides over the outdoor canonization Mass for Junipero Sera at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

As previously noted in an earlier blog, America Media has joined with ABC News in the coverage of Pope Francis’ first ever visit to the United States. America’s Editor at Large, Father James Martin, S.J. joined with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, and correspondents Terry Moran, Matthew Dowd, Cokie Roberts and Cecilia Vega (who covered the visit with the crowds lining along Pennsylvania Avenue this morning) in providing commentary on the official welcoming ceremonies.

Father Martin, in reviewing this morning’s events, perhaps summed it up best on behalf of everyone when he said: “It was beautiful from the get-go.”

Yes, it was beautiful; and there will be more of that to follow in the coming days for Pope Francis as he continues his encounters in the United States.