WASHINGTON, D.C.: Pope Francis received a rapturous welcome to Washington on Wednesday but did not shy away from controversy, addressing church sex abuse and urging action on immigration and climate change.
President Barack Obama was clearly delighted to welcome to the White House a pontiff who can lend moral and spiritual force to his own priorities, but others may be left uncomfortable by the pope’s stances.
Meeting Catholic bishops in Washington, he praised their handling of the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the US church.
“I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you,” he said.
“And I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims… and to work to ensure such crimes will never be repeated.”
The Argentine pontiff waded into another bitter US political debate when he urged the church to embrace new immigrants, speaking “not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from” the developing world.
“Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul. Perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared,” he said.
He later moved on to conduct his first mass in North America, a ceremony to canonize a Franciscan friar who brought Christianity to California, Junipero Serra — a figure also shrouded in controversy.
Native Americans hold Serra responsible for the suppression of their centuries-old culture and the death of many thousands of their ancestors.
Consternation over his elevation to sainthood did not overshadow the visit, however, and Francis was cheered by euphoric crowds with breathless wall-to-wall televised coverage as he toured Washington’s stately boulevards.
‘Welcoming the stranger’
Obama, America’s first black president, gave the first Latin American pope an effusive welcome to the White House, praising his moral leadership.
“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,” Obama said, praising Francis’ humility, simplicity and generosity of spirit.
Though Francis has inveighed against the materialism that the United States seems to embody like no other country, he is also a potential political ally for Obama, sharing many of his progressive goals and bringing along many of America’s 70 million Catholics.
Speaking in fluent, if accented, English, the 78-year-old returned the warm blessings of his host.
“As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said.