At White House, pope focuses on environment, poverty and migrants

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Pope Francis yesterday urged the United States to help tackle climate change and touched on other divisive US political issues such as immigration and economic inequality on his first visit to the world’s richest nation.

In a speech on the White House South Lawn on the first full day of his US trip, the Argentine pontiff lauded President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce air pollution, months after Francis made the environment one of his top concerns by issuing a landmark encyclical letter to the church.

“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.

When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history,” the pope said at a welcoming ceremony.

In an era of renewed racial tensions in the country, the 78-year-old pope invoked America’s best-known civil rights leader, the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, to make points about the environment and equality.

Speaking later to American bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, Francis said crimes of sexual abuse of minors by clergy should never be repeated, acknowledging the damage caused by years of scandal in the US Catholic Church.

The pope also said Mass to about 25,000 gathered inside and outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and canonized 18th century Spanish missionary Friar Junipero Serra despite the objections of critics who say that Serra beat and imprisoned Native Americans, suppressed their cultures and facilitated the spread of diseases that heavily reduced the population.

As Washington streets were closed and federal workers stayed home, about 15,000 people gathered in bright sunshine and warm temperatures on the South Lawn. They heard the pope depart from his usual practice and give a speech in English.

He again made a gesture of simplicity, pulling up in the small black Fiat car he used for his arrival in the US capital on Tuesday.

Francis is a critic of the damage caused to the world’s poor and the environment by capitalism’s excesses. The pope also commented on immigration and religious freedom, issues on the US political agenda ahead of the November 2016 presidential election.

Obama, whose plans for a climate change bill were thwarted in Congress early in his presidency, said he shared the pope’s concerns about the environment.

“Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet: God’s magnificent gift to us. We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations,” Obama said.

Francis and Obama held about 40 minutes of talks in the White House. An interpreter was the only other person present and the White House declined to detail the talks. Both men see eye-to-eye on climate change and defence of the poor but hold different views on abortion rights and gay marriage.

Francis gave his support to traditional marriage, pointing out that he will travel to Philadelphia later in his six-day visit to the United States for a meeting of Catholics “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family.” The US Supreme Court in June legalized same-sex marriage across the United States.

In an apparent nod to the fierce debate in the United States about illegal immigration, Francis described himself as the son of an immigrant Italian family in Argentina. “I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said at the White House.

Adoring crowds waving white-and-yellow Vatican flags cheered the pontiff on a parade through Washington streets as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics sprinkled some stardust in a city not unduly impressed with important foreign visitors.

At one point, he had his converted Jeep stop when he saw a baby in the crowd. Francis was handed the 5-month-old son of Salvadoran immigrants who live in Virginia, and kissed the boy, Loukas Chavez, on the head.

“I just thought it was an unbelievable moment,” said the baby’s mother, Iris Chavez, 25, her daughter, Emely, almost 2, in her arms.

Maria Manzo, a 79-year-old Catholic from New Jersey, said hearing the pope on the South Lawn was “just awesome,” but disagreed with his raising of political issues.

“I don’t like to see the Church get involved in stuff like that,” Manzo said. “I think we’ve got enough problems of our own.”

The first Latin American pope, Francis has electrified liberal-leaning US Catholics, Democrats and many non-Catholics with a shift in emphasis toward concern for the poor and immigrants and his appeals to combat climate change. But his criticism of unbridled capitalism has unsettled U.S. conservatives.

While Francis has pushed for a more inclusive Church, appealing to divorced Catholics and gays, he has not changed teaching that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

A small group of women protested outside St Matthew’s Cathedral calling on the pope to allow female priests.

Francis will give the first speech by any pope to the US Congress today, an address to the UN General Assembly in New York tomorrow and an open-air Mass in Philadelphia where 1.5 million people are expected to attend on Sunday.


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