Pope Francis delved into the controversial topic of immigration almost as soon as he began speaking Wednesday during his first visit to the United States.
Speaking at the South Lawn of the White House, Pope Francis drew a personal connection between his family history and the United States.
“As a child of immigrants,” he said Wednesday morning, speaking slowly but in good English, “I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
After lingering with young people outside the Vatican's diplomatic mission, Francis arrived at the White House under sunny skies, the crowd of invited guests, military personnel and officials gathered for remarks by President Barack Obama and the pope.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with Latinos and immigrants, formally and informally, during his visit to Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia in September and immigration will be the topic of a speech he will give outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
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But he seemed to bring up the subject within the first minutes of his speech, point out his Hispanic background in a direct appeal to the country’s growing immigrant community.
The Fiat, his modest vehicle of choice, bearing the pope arrived at around 9:20 a.m. at the White House, where he was greeted by the president and the first lady and a crowd of thousands.
President Barack Obama spoke first, saying, “What a beautiful day the Lord has made.”
He went on to observe that there were many firsts being celebrated today.
“You’ve been celebrated for being the first pope from the Americas,” Obama said. “This is your first visit to the United States. You’re also the first pope to issue an encyclical via Twitter.”
He also touched on the pope’s efforts to restore relations between the U.S. and Cuba. “We are grateful for your invaluable support for our new beginning with the Cuban people.”
For his part, the pope kept his remarks on the topics that are closest to his heart—injustice, religious liberty, ensuring the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged and the environment.
“I hope to listen to and share many of the hopes and dreams of the American people,” the pope said. “During my visit I will have the honor of addressing Congress, Where I hope as a brother of this country to offer words of encouragement about the nation’s political future maintains fidelity to its founding principles.”
Francis called religious liberty “one of America's most precious possessions,” and urged people “to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
He also took on the controversial topic of climate change, saying the time to act on it was now.
“Climate change,” he said, “is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation.”
After the ceremony, Obama led Francis into the White House. They reappeared on a balcony and waved to the throngs huddled on the lawn and walked along the colonnade and past the famed Rose Garden on the way to the president's office.
Climate is one of several issues on which Francis and Obama agree and a likely topic of discussion in their meeting.
Another likely topic is the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Francisacted as something of a go-between for the longtime foes.