WASHINGTON — With over 11,000 ticketed guests gathered on the South Lawn, Pope Francis made his first-ever visit to the White House Wednesday morning, and called on the world to defend religious liberties and take better care of the environment before going to the Oval Office for a private meeting with President Barack Obama.
The leader of the Catholic Church was welcomed to the White House by the president and first lady Michelle Obama. After the playing of the Holy See's national anthem, the U.S. national anthem, and a short speech by Obama, the pope made his first direct address to the American people and challenged all Americans to be "vigilant" defenders of religious liberty.
"Mr. President, together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics 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," the pontiff asserted. "With countless other people of goodwill, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty."
"That freedom reminds one of America's most precious possessions," he continued. "And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it."
In the president's speech, Obama also discussed religious liberty and explained that Christians throughout the world are being killed for their faith, a fact which he was criticized for not mentioning after the beheadings of Coptic Christians by Islamic State militants in Libya.
"You remind us that people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely," Obama told the pope. "Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. It was the basis for so much of what brought us together. And here in the United States, we cherish our religious liberty, but around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith."
"Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship. The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed," the president continued. "So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation."
After discussing the importance of religious liberty, Francis used a good portion of his speech to discuss the the political issue of climate change, and argued that the time has come for the world to address the issue. The pontiff commended Obama for introducing an initiative to reduce air pollution.
"Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation," the pope said. "When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change."
The pontiff also stressed the role that the international community should serve in looking after refugees and other people throughout the world who are not as fortunate to have the same freedoms and rights as those in the West.
"I would like all men and women of goodwill in this great nation to 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," Francis urged.
Following the pope's speech, he and Obama met privately in the Oval Office, where, according to a White House official, Obama gave the pontiff a metal sculpture of an ascending dove (the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit), which is made from an original armature bar from the Statue of Liberty.
In attendence at the pope's White House visit was former secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance Geoff Tunnicliffe, who has personally met with Pope Francis three times in the past year to build a friendship and discuss "common areas of concern" between Catholics and Evangelicals, such as poverty, human trafficking, persecution and social justice.
"It was a warm speech, but I think it was provocative as well and hit some of the areas that need to be dealt with," Tunnicliffe, who is the advisory board chairman for The Christian Post's umbrella company Christian Media Corporation, told CP after the pope's visit. "I think there was real warmth in the crowd as well and a lot of enthusiasm for what he was saying. I think he is off to a great start here in the U.S., and I think he is not going to shy away from the difficult issues."
Tunnicliffe praised Pope Francis for addressing issues like climate change and the protection of religious liberty.
"Pope Francis, in particular, emphasized the care for the vulnerable and he spent a lot of time on the climate change issue. He talked about our 'common home,' which I think is great language to describe this climate that we live on," Tunnicliffe said. "Obviously, that is a passion for him. He referred to many of the key issues that concern us — religious freedom, extreme poverty, and those are probably just highlighting somethings that I guess that he will be dealing with in the coming days."
After his White House visit, the Pope led a prayer for the U.S. bishops at the St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, D.C. During the evening Wednesday, Francis will hold a canonization mass in Spanish for 25,000 ticket holders at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
The pontiff will address a joint session of Congress Thursday morning before he travels to New York City. After arriving in New York, the pope will hold a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. On Friday, he will meet with the United Nations General Assembly and will also hold a mass at Madison Square Garden.
The pope will then travel to Philadelphia on Saturday, where he will hold a prayer vigil for the World Meeting of Families, which is the largest meeting of Catholic families held every three years. Later in the day, he will visit the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the location where the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence were signed.
On Sunday, the pope will hold a papal meeting in the morning with bishops at St. Martin's Chapel of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the suburbs of Philadelphia. At 4 p.m., the pope will hold a mass for the World Meeting of Families.
The pope will depart for Rome on Sunday night.