Pope Francis: Action on climate change can't wait

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Washington —  Cheered by jubilant crowds across the nation’s capital, Pope Francis forged common cause Wednesday with President Barack Obama on climate change, immigration and inequality, as the popular pontiff signaled he would not sidestep issues that have deeply divided Americans.

On his first full day in the United States, the pope also reached out to America’s 450 bishops, many of whom have struggled to come to terms with his new social justice-minded direction for the Catholic Church. He gently prodded the bishops to forgo “harsh and divisive language,” while commending their “courage” in the face of the church’s sexual abuse scandal — rhetoric that angered victims he may meet with later in his trip.

First lady Michelle Obama,  Pope Francis and President Barack Obama,  wave from the White House balcony on September 23, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

The 78-year-old pontiff’s whirlwind day in Washington enlivened the often stoic, politically polarized city. Excited crowds lined streets near the White House to catch a glimpse of the smiling and waving Francis as he passed by in his open-air “popemobile.” He seemed to draw energy from the cheering spectators, particularly the children his security detail brought to him for a papal kiss and blessing.

In keeping with his reputation as the “people’s pope,” Francis kept Obama and other dignitaries at the White House waiting so he could spend time greeting schoolchildren gathered outside the Vatican’s diplomatic mission where he spent the night.

With flags snapping, color guard at attention and a military band playing, Francis stepped from his modest Fiat onto the South Lawn on a crisp fall morning that felt as optimistic as his own persona. Pope and president stood on a red-carpeted platform bedecked with red, white and blue bunting for the national anthems of the Holy See and the United States.

The pope’s remarks were brief, yet pointed.

Speaking in a soft voice and halting English, Francis delivered a strong message against those who doubt the science of climate change, saying that the warming planet “demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition” of conditions awaiting today’s children.

Francis said that climate change demands "serious and responsible recognition" of those living on the margins — "millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them," he said.

"To use a telling phrase of the Rev. Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it," Francis said to applause.

Francis in his remarks also stressed the value of inclusiveness and the need to defend religious freedoms with "vigilance."

"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," he said.

Parts of his message were sure to be welcomed by many U.S. bishops and conservatives who have objected to the Obama administration’s health care mandate and the recent Supreme Court legalization of same-sex marriage.

Just before the pope arrived, Obama had tweeted to the Holy Father: “Welcome to the White House, @Pontifex! Your messages of love, hope, and peace have inspired us all.”

Obama, joking that his backyard is not typically so crowded, told the pope that the excitement surrounding his visit was a reflection of Francis’ unique qualities, mentioning “your humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit.”

The president singled out the pope’s call for focusing on the poor and the marginalized, including refugees fleeing war and immigrants in search of a better life. He also highlighted the pope’s call for protecting the planet and supporting communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The president also thanked the pope for his support for efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Pope Francis waves while he greets school children prior to his departure from the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington on Wednesday.

After their opening remarks on the lawn, Obama and Francis pulled up two arm chairs by the fireplace in the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting where they hoped to find common cause on issues they hold dear — and respectful disagreement where they differ sharply, on subjects such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

The pope later in the morning was to speak to America’s bishops, an address that was highly anticipated given a certain disconnect between Francis’ focus on social justice and a merciful church and the culture wars that America’s bishops have waged in recent years over abortion and gay rights.

From the instant the white-robed and grinning Francis landed in the U.S. on Tuesday, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and clambered into his charcoal-gray Fiat, his visit has electrified wonky Washington, which can be jaded about the comings and goings of world figures.

Washington was the first stop on the pope’s six-day, three-city visit to the United States.

People of all faiths wanted to be a part of it, from the hundreds on hand for his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base late Tuesday to the clumps of spectators outside the Vatican’s diplomatic mission where the pope was staying to the throngs at the White House.

Along the parade route, bodyguards ferried several babies from behind police barricades to the Jeep for pontifical kisses. And at one point, a young girl in pigtails and tennis shoes tried to approach the popemobile. When security guards tried to shoo her back, Francis motioned her over and bestowed a papal kiss and blessing.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who attended the event with other mayors from around the country, said he was deeply moved by the ceremony and Francis' message on reconciliation and freedom.

"At the end, he commented on the need for an inclusive model of development. That hit home for me because that's exactly what we need to continue to work towards in Flint," Walling said.

"In our communities in Michigan, we have to make sure there's greater economic opportunities for people of all backgrounds and ages."

Francis' call for Americans to confront injustice and discrimination also resonated because that's "one way we're going to build the inclusive, sustainable economy that we need," he said.

Martin Manna, executive director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Bingham Farms, attended the welcoming ceremony but had a hard time hearing Francis' speech from his seat on the South Lawn.

"We could hear most of what the president had to say, which from my point of view was welcome news, given the struggles we've had with persecuted minorities, basically in the Middle East," Manna said. "I just wish the administration would take more action."

As the State Department boosts the number of refugees it takes in this year and next, Manna wants federal officials to be more accepting of not only Syrian refugees but also Iraqis, especially the most vulnerable refugees including ethnic and religious minorities, he said.

Persecution of those minorities, including Christians in Iraq and Syria, is something that Manna hopes Francis will talk about when he addresses Congress on Thursday.

Manna said Francis' visit has already sparked action in Washington, including a bipartisan resolution introduced this month in the U.S. House denouncing as "genocide" the violence against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier, Kimberly Johnson, a 27-year-old medical student who lives in Washington, arrived outside the security gates at midnight to be the first one let into the sectioned-off viewing area that opened at 4 a.m.

“It’s not just that he’s the pope. He’s a cool pope,” Johnson said. “He’s bringing the Catholic Church into the 21st century and making it a more accessible faith.”

The pope took his time getting to the White House, stopping to greet schoolchildren who had gathered outside the Vatican’s nunciature. The children took selfies with the pope, hugged him and waved Holy See flags.

Thousands more were gathering for a morning parade on streets near the White House.

Jacqueline Collins of Chicago held miniature American and Vatican flags as she waited for the ceremony to start.

Collins, who is Catholic, arrived to wait in the security line at the White House at 3 a.m. Wednesday, and there was already 200 or so people in line, she said.

"I admire this pope. I think he's a breath of fresh air in the  Catholic Church," she said. "I love his outreach to the least of these, and I love that he's bringing the theology of what it means to be catholic back to the church."

Collins said she grew up in the church in the 1950s and '60s at a time that, "as an African-American, it wasn't always the most welcoming place."

"Today, I'm so proud to be Catholic, and that has not always been the case," Collins said.

Francis delighted an adoring crowd with his popemobile procession. The pope is moving slowly past throngs lining his route from the White House, waving from an outfitted Jeep that is open on the sides.

At one point, a young girl carrying a yellow banner got outside the police barricade holding the crowds back and tried to approach the popemobile. She shied back when a bodyguard came near to pick her up and bring her to Francis. But then the pope gestured to her to come to him, and she allowed the bodyguard to pick her up and bring her to Francis for a papal kiss and blessing.

The pope also paused twice to have babies brought to him, and he kissed them on the head.

It’s his first encounter with the American public, after his invitation-only event on the White House South Lawn.

For all of the oh-wow enthusiasm attending the visit, the pope and the president, with overlapping but far-from-identical agendas, had serious matters to attend to.

Even before he arrived for his first U.S. visit, Francis was fending off conservative criticism of his economic views. He told reporters on his flight from Cuba that some people may have an inaccurate impression that he is “a little bit more left-leaning.”

“I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said.

As for conservatives who question whether he is truly Catholic, he added jokingly, “If I have to recite the Creed, I’m ready.”

Obama was anxious to add oomph to his own efforts to combat climate change and fight income inequality, among other things, by finding common cause with the pope. But the two differ sharply on other issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Francis’ next stop after the White House was a worship service with America’s 450-strong bishops’ conference at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where he took note of the clergy sex abuse scandal that erupted in the U.S. in 2002.

The pope praised the bishops for a “generous commitment to bring healing to victims” and for acting “without fear of self-criticism.”

Many U.S. bishops have struggled to come to terms with Francis’ new social justice-minded direction of the church. Nearly all were appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They prioritized drawing clearer boundaries for Catholic behavior and belief in the face of legalized abortion, advances in gay rights and the exodus of many Westerners from organized religion.

The American church spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year through its social service agencies, and for years has sought an overhaul of the immigration system to reunite families, shelter refugees and give the poor the chance at a better life. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has increasingly put its resources behind high-profile fights over abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

Hailing from Argentina, the first pope from the Americas also was acting Wednesday to canonize a Spanish friar who brought the Catholic faith to California.

Francis was to celebrate the Mass of canonization for Junipero Serra in Spanish. Several thousand of the 25,000 tickets to the event were set aside for Spanish-speaking people, many from California. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception erected a temporary sanctuary on the east portico for the Mass.

On Thursday, Francis planned to deliver the first papal address ever to Congress, speaking to Republican-majority legislators deeply at odds with Obama on issues such as gay rights, immigration, abortion and climate change. Those same issues are roiling the early months of the presidential campaign.

For all the focus on Francis’ speeches, his less scripted moments in meeting with immigrants, prisoners and the homeless could prove more memorable.

He was expected to meet with poor immigrants and other clients of Catholic Charities in Washington and with prisoners in Pennsylvania. He also is known to veer off schedule for unscripted encounters.

Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.