At the White House on September 23, President Barack Obama celebrated the visit to the United States of the first-ever Latin American Pontiff, Argentinian–born Pope Francis.
President Obama noted the excitement aroused by the spiritual leader of the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics, including 70 million Americans. In addition to praising the mission of the Catholic Church to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, President Obama said the enthusiasm that greets Pope Francis must be attributed not only to his role as pope, but to his “unique qualities as a person” – humility, gentleness of rhetoric, and generosity of spirit.
Mr. Obama noted Pope Francis’s call to Catholics and non-Catholics alike to put the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized at the center of individual and societal concern – to stand up for justice and against inequality. He praised the Pope’s support for solving disputes diplomatically; his help in opening the door to a new relationship between the United States and Cuba; his reminders that “people are only free when they can practice their faith freely;” his call to recognize the obligation shared by all to protect the planet from climate change and preserve it for future generations.
In his reply, Pope Francis, referring to himself as the son of an immigrant family and happy to be the guest of a country, as he said, “largely built by such families,” sounded many of the same themes as President Obama -– the requirement to build a just society that respects the right to religious liberty; the challenge of responding to the millions of people who have been overlooked by or excluded from the economic system; the need to address climate change.
After leaving the White House, Pope Francis proceeded to other venues and events in Washington, including the celebration of the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil, Spanish missionary Junipero Serra; an address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress -- the first Pontiff to do so; a lunch with the homeless in downtown D.C.
Throughout Pope Francis’ visit, Americans of every creed and race have listened to his message. In his address to the pontiff, President Obama suggested why: “You shake our conscience from slumber…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.”