WASHINGTON –– Pope Francis has called for further action on climate change, saying that it was “a critical moment of history”, on the first day of his visit to the United States. Speaking to a crowd of more than 11,000 people on the White House South Lawn, the pontiff said the problem could “no longer be left to a future generation”.
President Barack Obama said the pope reminded people “that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet”.
The pope also praised the response of American bishops to the sex abuse crisis.
He told those gathered at St Matthew’s Cathedral that American church leaders had brought a “generous commitment to bring healing to victims”, but said the church officials must work to ensure the abuse would not happen again.
Earlier, making a rare speech in English to thousands at the White House, Pope Francis praised President Obama for recent proposals aimed at tackling air pollution.
Time remains to make the changes required, the pope said, in a speech that also called for protecting religious liberty and stamping out discrimination.
The environmental issue is divisive in American politics, with one Republican congressman boycotting the pope’s speech to Congress tomorrow because of the pontiff’s stance.
All the leading Republican presidential candidates oppose action to tackle climate change because they say it will hurt the economy.
The morning began with the pontiff emerging from the Apostolic Nunciature –– the Holy See’s equivalent of an embassy –– around 9 a.m. local time.
Clad in his traditional white cassock, Pope Francis spent several minutes greeting well-wishers who had assembled behind temporary fencing in front of the diplomatic complex.
After shaking hands and giving hugs and kisses to the largely young crowd, the pope boarded a modest hatchback trailed by a convoy of large security vehicles and made the 15-minute drive through Washington on streets that had been cleared of traffic for the occasion.
At the White House, large crowds gathered on the South Lawn to greet the pontiff. Officials said over 11,000 tickets had been issued, but noted that the crowd was even larger.
A cadre of Obama administration officials and a military colour guard flanked a stage set up outside the South Portico –– among the most rare and respectful diplomatic ceremonies that the American government can offer visiting dignitaries.
Following a military colour guard and the playing of the Holy See and American national anthems, President Obama welcomed the pope with brief remarks.
After the pope spoke, he held a private meeting with the president at the White House Oval Office before the pope embarked on a parade in a specially outfitted jeep known as the “Popemobile”.
Crowds lined the streets, and a young girl and a baby were allowed to cross security barriers to be greeted and hugged.
The pope also conducted the first canonization on American soil, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington.
At the afternoon Mass, Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who founded a mission in California in the 18th century, became the first Hispanic saint in the United States.
But the decision to canonize the missionary has been criticized by some Native Americans, who view him as someone who aggressively imposed Catholicism on their ancestors. Pope Francis has in the past apologized for the treatment of indigenous people.