Pope in DC

Pope Francis places his hand on the head of a girl as he greets school children prior to traveling to the White House from the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington. (AP Photo)

During his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis addressed the heavily debated topic of immigration in a speech he delivered Sept. 23 at the White House.

“As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” Pope Francis told a crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered on the White House South Lawn.  “I look forward to these days of encounter and dialogue, in which I hope to listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.”

The comments, made during a ceremony, were received with thunderous applause.  Tears were abundant from the honored guests to the cameramen, many of whom labeled the experience “overwhelming” or “surreal.”

Even President Barack Obama, in his opening address, noted Pope Francis’ calm and grace and appeared awestruck by the Pope.

“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.  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’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds,” Obama said.

The President said that whether Catholic or non-Catholic, Pope Francis’ constant refrain has been to live up to the tenets of stewardship – helping others, general kindness, and championing peace – as a sign of personal integrity.

“You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity –- because we are all made in the image of God,” Obama said.

Pope Francis offered encouragement to American leaders, whom he said were responsible for guiding the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles.  It is a refrain he has presented globally, and most recently among nations refusing to accept fleeing refugees.

“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,” the Pope said.  “With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.”

The Pope stressed the need for each nation to take their responsibilities as global citizens seriously not only with regard to aiding those in crisis, but in taking better care of the world’s natural resources.  Calling the earth “our common home,” the Pope expressed gratitude that the Obama administration placed a high priority on addressing air pollution and climate change.

“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.  We know by faith that ‘the Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis’ speech was made as the third Papal visit to the White House in its history.  President Jimmy Carter (in 1979) and President George W. Bush (in 2008) were the previous two U.S. Presidents to welcome the Pope to the White House.

According to CNN, Obama gave the Pope a keepsake sculpture of an ascending dove made from metal taken from the Statue of Liberty and wood from a tree which once grew in the White House garden.

The White House ceremony closed with St. Augustine Choir’s performance of the song, “Total Praise” and was followed by a Papal parade down Constitution Avenue.