Pope to US: Embrace immigrants
POPE Francis received a rapturous welcome to Washington on Wednesday, but he did not shy away from controversy, addressing church sex abuse and urging action on immigration and climate change.
United States 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 realise 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.
As he toured Washington's stately boulevards, the Pope was cheered by crowds with wall-to-wall televised coverage.
Mr 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," Mr Obama said, praising the pontiff's humility, simplicity and generosity of spirit.
Though the Pope has inveighed against the materialism that the US seems to embody like no other country, he is also a potential political ally for Mr 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.
Pope Francis said he would address Congress "to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation's political future in fidelity to its founding principles".
He was to become the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint meeting of Congress yesterday, including more than 500 lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and top administration officials.
His message may come as good news to a five-year-old American-born girl whose parents are from Mexico, who caught the attention of the Pope - and the world.
As Pope Francis drew nearer and nearer in his open-sided Popemobile and the crowd in Washington cheered, Sofia Cruz clambered over a metal barrier, darted out onto Constitution Avenue and headed straight for the pontiff - Secret Service agents be damned.
"She handed the Pope a letter asking him to support the drive to legalise undocumented migrants living in the United States," said her family's parish in Los Angeles.
More than 11 million people without legal residency, like her parents, could be deported unless immigration reform is passed.
Mr Obama lauded Pope Francis for reminding the world 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," Mr Obama said.