WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pope Francis plunged into his first U.S. visit with gusto Wednesday, embracing the adulation of jubilant crowds across Washington even as he confronted controversy in remarks at the White House and a meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops.
More than 3,000 people filed through security screening for an afternoon Mass on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as tens of thousands more filled surrounding blocks. The pope, on the first full day of his five-day trip, had already called for more compassion for immigrants and protection for the environment, thrilling activists who have seen the pontiff as a liberal champion.
But he also seemed to declare himself inseparable from a church hierarchy that is much less popular than he is, praising bishops for their handling of the priestly sex abuse scandal.
Addressing hundreds of clergymen in Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the pope told them:
“I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
The pope, speaking in the soaring cathedral, also spoke of the devil, “the evil one, [who] roars like a lion, anxious to devour” joy. And he listed the church’s challenges in the future:
“The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, … the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature.”
Pope Francis’ words on the pedophile priest scandal drew some quick reaction.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law who has represented hundreds of sex abuse victims, said she wished the pope had focused more on the victims, rather than the church.
“I think the survivors had hoped for more attention on their suffering,” said Hamilton. “It’s also shocking to hear him praise the bishops in their handling of child sex abuse when there are so many states that cut out the victims from the justice system.”
The pope’s words to the bishops came in contrast to the joyous popemobile circuit along some of Washington’s historic avenues just minutes before. He greeted thousands of jubilant well-wishers, kissed babies and children, and blew kisses to the crowd.
A love fest
Pope Francis, clothed in flowing white robes, smiled and waved to delighted bystanders who shouted and waved back as he passed in the bubble-topped vehicle around the landmark Ellipse, south of the White House.
Security guards plucked children from the crowd, and the pope kissed and blessed them before passing them back.
The circuit along 15th Street, Constitution Avenue and 17th Street in Northwest, and past the Washington Monument, was a love fest, with the pope leaning out the side openings of the popemobile and waving to the cheering bystanders as if to friends.
At one point, a security officer picked up a child from the crowd and carried the toddler to the pope. The popemobile stopped, and Francis kissed and caressed the youngster. He did that several more times before his motorcade returned to the White House.
The parade took place on a sparkling morning after Pope Francis was hailed by President Barack Obama at the White House for his stance on climate change, to which the pope responded in kind.
After the parade, the pope went to pray with several hundred U.S. bishops.
The service, or “Midday Prayer,” took place in the soaring cathedral, to music and song.
“Brother bishops,” the pope said, speaking in Italian. “As I look out with affection at you, … I would like to embrace all the local churches over which you exercise loving responsibility.”
“From your great coastal cities to the plains of the Midwest, from the deep South to the far reaches of the West, wherever your people gather in the Eucharistic assembly, may the pope be not simply a name … but a felt presence, sustaining the fervent plea of the bride: “Come, Lord!”
Pope Francis then brought up immigration, a political issue in the United States.
“I am well aware of the immense efforts you have made to welcome and integrate those immigrants who continue to look to America, like so many others before them, in the hope of enjoying its blessings of freedom and prosperity,” he said.
Earlier, at the White House, Pope Francis spoke to Obama about climate change.
“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” the pontiff said at the sun-splashed event on the South Lawn. “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.
“When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history,” he said. “We still have time to make the changes needed.”
Francis’s remarks also focused on the need to provide comfort to those at the margins of society.
The event was attended by thousands of dignitaries, among them Vice President Joe Biden; his wife, Jill; Ethel Kennedy; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
A living example of Jesus
In his warm welcome to the pope, Obama called the pope a living example of Jesus and a figure of humility and simplicity.
“I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as pope but to your unique qualities as a person,” the president began, in welcoming the pope, as the pontiff sat beside the lectern on the South Lawn.
“In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’s teachings,” Obama said.
“You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike to … ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity, because we are all made in the image of God,” he said.
The Spanish-speaking Pope Francis addressed the president in accented but clear English, introducing himself to the crowd in his first sentence as “the son of an immigrant” – his family came from Italy to Argentina – and describing the United States as “largely built by such families.”
The words are likely to resonate at a time where the political debate in the United States has been marked by a divisive debate over immigration.
Francis’s remarks were brief but also welcome to a White House looking to build momentum ahead of a major U.N. summit on climate change in Paris in December.
See: 5 things Pope Francis gets totally right about climate change
In praising the president for his efforts to secure commitments from countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Francis described climate change as an “urgent” problem.
Obama returned the compliment to the pope for the pontiff’s work on climate change, one of the most important initiatives for the president during his remaining 15 months in office. “Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet – God’s magnificent gift to us,” Obama said.
Obama acknowledged the 15,000 people packing the South Lawn, a rare occurrence. “Our back yard is not typically this crowded,” he said. It was a regal welcome with military bands and sword-wielding Honor Guards in their dress uniforms.
Behind them were the dignitaries and then farther back the large crowds lucky to score tickets from the White House.
Earlier, the pope plunged into a crowd of Catholic school students, shaking hands and being hugged and kissed before heading to the White House.
The pope emerged from the Vatican Nunciature, in Northwest Washington, where he spent the night, shortly before 9 a.m. and made a bee line for the cheering students gathered behind bicycle barriers.
He smiled, chatted and shook hands as he worked his way along the line for several minutes and the young people waved yellow and white papal flags, embraced him and took pictures.
One man leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. “Papa!” people yelled. “Papa!
After about 10 minutes, the pope departed the White House for the meeting with Obama and thousands of dignitaries. He arrived there at 9:23 a.m.
Meanwhile, individuals, groups and families with children bundled against the morning chill had trooped downtown and lined up along security barricades near the pope’s parade route south of the White House.
Others began walking or riding in after early morning Masses at churches across the region to mark Francis’s first visit to the United States.
When the gates to one secure area around the parade route opened around 5:15 a.m. near Lafayette Park, people ran to get through the area and U.S. Secret Service agents ordered them to slow down.
“It was like a Black Friday at a department store,” Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said of the rush.
Nearby, priests heard the confessions of the faithful, and in northwest Washington, a throng of Catholic school children chanted and waved flags outside the Vatican Nunciature.
“We love Francis, yes we do! We love Francis, how ’bout you?” they hollered.
Large crowds for the Argentina-born Pope Francis
The pope was scheduled to celebrate a 4:15 p.m. Mass on Wednesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington to canonize Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest who founded historic missions in California. Thousands of people were gathering there by early afternoon.
On Thursday, Francis will make the first address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress. Afterward, he is scheduled to appear on the balcony of the West Front of the Capitol to greet a crowd that was expected to swell to about 50,000.
Large crowds expected both days, and streets will be thronged and periodically cordoned off across the city as the pope crisscrosses the District.
He is scheduled to leave for New York on Thursday, then travel Saturday to Philadelphia in a visit that will end Sunday.
The popular 78-year-old Argentina-born pope, who has softened the church’s tone, focused on climate change and the poor, and seized a spot on the global stage, is making his first trip ever to the United States.
People of all stripes showed up Wednesday.
A large group from the Church of the Sacred Heart, known better as Sagrado Corazon to its majority Latino congregation in Columbia Heights, headed from Mass to the Ellipse.
Among the wooden crosses, white balloons and smartphones they carried, a few parishioners held rolled up signs, “working people welcome Pope Francis,” printed by the labor organization AFL-CIO.
The political dynamic of the pope’s visit is not lost on this largely immigrant group. They know what they want to hear from Pope Francis.
“I hope his words change things,” said Fidel Larios, 47, of Washington. “I hope he speaks sincerely so people will do the right thing.”
When he talks about change, Larios said he is referring to the one thing so many in this crowd want: immigration reform. He’s been waiting for it and is tired, he said, of broken promises.
Near the Washington Monument, the Kolodzieski family from Apex, N.C., made their own paper papal bishop’s mitres and claimed a spot along Constitution Avenue.
“I felt very strongly that I wanted to see him,” said Carol Kolodzieski.
“I think it’s something they can carry through their entire lives,” said her husband Scott, referring to their three children seeing the pope in person. As for her New York Yankees shirt, Carol said: “We pray for them all the time too.”
For the Silvani family of Potomac, Maryland, chance to see Pope Francis in Washington was a matter of national pride.
Their parents are from Argentina and so all eight siblings — five brothers and three sisters – brought their families to the corner of 17th and E streets where they’re looking forward to seeing the first Argentine-born pope.
When Francis was elected pope, “we were screaming. It was pure excitement,” said Gabriella Silvani.
So when plans for a D.C. visit were announced, the family knew they had to mobilize.
At 5 a.m. Wednesday, Gabriela, Matias, Carolina, Sebastian, Lorena, Agustin, Ezequiel and Tomas headed to the Ellipse with their families, many wearing Argentine sky blue and white and some sporting Messi jerseys.
Their parents, Carlos and Elizabeth, skipped the parade but they won’t miss the pope. They have tickets to the mass at Catholic University later today.
Some in the crowd were opposed to the Francis..
Five people wearing “Repent or Perish” T-shirts walked up Constitution Avenue toward the security checkpoint at 14 Street NW. They carried tall black signs with white lettering. One said “The Pope Is the Antichrist,” and that was enough to incite the crowd of about 1,000 waiting for admission to the Ellipse.
“Let’s go Francis!” chanted Arlington, Virginia, resident Michael Jackson, and others joined him, breaking out their guitars and singing “Francisco! Francisco!” But the sign bearers had bull horns.
“If you see a man in a white robe, it’s all external righteousness,” said one protester with a bull horn. “It’s filthy. The pope is a blasphemous, wicked wretch. He needs to renounce the papacy or burn in fire.”
The protesters said they are born-again Christians from a church called All Grace on the Eastern Shore. Jackson, who wore a University of Notre Dame cap and polo shirt, stood directly in front of the bull horn.
“How can I learn if you won’t have a conversation with me?” Jackson, 25, asked one of the protesters.
“I’m not your answer,” the protester said, before going back to shouting about false idols. “Go ask God.”
Washington Post staff writers David Montgomery, Nick Miroff, Fenit Nirappil, Mike DeBonis, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.
© 2015, The Washington Post