In his first speech on American soil, Pope Francis mentioned four hot-button issues he is likely to return to in the coming days: immigration, religious liberty, climate change and—without naming them explicitly—the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba and the agreement reached between the international community and Iran on the nuclear question.
He did so when he spoke at the welcome ceremony given for him in the South Lawn of the White House by President Barack Obama on the morning of Sept. 23.
Obama welcomed him “in the name of the American people,” noting that the pope’s visit “reveals how much all Americans, from every background and of every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America.”
The president added, “From my time working in impoverished neighborhoods with the Catholic Church in Chicago, to my travels as President, I’ve seen firsthand how, every day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns, and laity feed the hungry, heal the sick, shelter the homeless, educate our children, and fortify the faith that sustains so many.”
President Obama commented on the many areas of mutual concern which the pope has shown leadership in addressing, from the refugee crisis to peace-making. “You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity,” the president said, “but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity—because we are all made in the image of God.”
He added, “You remind us that ‘the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart—from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life.”
The president hailed Pope Francis as a global leader who reminds us “that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet—God’s magnificent gift to us,” a leader who is “shaking us out of complacency.
“All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right,” the president said, “but I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better.
“You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to ‘never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope.’”
Francis, speaking carefully in English, thanked him for this gracious welcome, and then went onto add that “as the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
By mentioning immigration in this way in his first speech in this country, and doing so at the White House, the Pope signals that this is an issue of major importance to him and will reappear again in the coming days. He then went onto touch on three other key issues that he’s sure to return to again during this visit: religious liberty and climate change and recent international accords involving the United States.
He probably mentioned the issue of religious liberty at the prompting, if not insistence, of the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is convinced that this freedom is under threat because of the Obamacare legislation. The Affordable Care Act obliges some religious institutions to pay for reproductive health care that includes contraception and the use of what church leaders believe are abortifacient drugs, without respecting conscience objections.
Francis said American Catholics, together with their fellow citizens, “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.”
But—he added—along with countless other people of good will “they are concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.”
Religious liberty “remains one of America’s most precious possessions,” he told the president and, associating himself with the U.S. bishops, he recalled that they said, “all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
While the President may have felt uncomfortable with his reference to religious liberty, he would certainly have rejoiced greatly at Francis’ words on climate change.
He told the President that he found his initiative for reducing air pollution “encouraging,” and, emphasizing the urgency of the problem, Francis said, “it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”
“We are living at a critical moment of history” when it comes to the care our common home, the pope said. Quoting from his recent encyclical, 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.”
He noted however that “such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition 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.”
In actual fact, he said, “our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies.” Quoting the words that Martin Luther King used in another context, Francis added, “We can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
Nevertheless, he said, again quoting the encyclical, “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” He assured the president of the commitment of the Catholic Church “to the conscious and responsible care of our common home.
Pope Francis concluded by hailing recent efforts “to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family” as “positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice and freedom.”
This appeared to be an explicit endorsement of the two recent accords involving the USA: the normalization of relations with Cuba and the agreement between international community and Iran over the nuclear question.
He went onto express the hope that “all men and women of good will” in the United States would “support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world and to stimulate integral and inclusive models of development, so that our brothers and sisters everywhere may know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children.”
Then, with a view to the days ahead, said he looked forward “to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people,” and briefly mentioned the main events on his agenda.
“I will have the honor of addressing Congress, where I hope, 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,” he said.
He said he would also travel to Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”
He concluded by thanking President Obama once again for his welcome and added, “God bless America!”