WASHINGTON — Pope Francis swept into America on Wednesday, captivating the nation’s capital as he launched his first visit, embracing the country’s heritage while challenging it to do more to solve global problems.
“God bless America,” he said to enthusiastic applause at the White House at the start of a whirlwind day.
Thousands cheered the popular leader of the Roman Catholic Church as he made his way around the nation’s capital, first at an elaborate welcome on the South Lawn of the White House, then on a brief parade in the “popemobile” near the National Mall, and finally at an outdoor Mass for 25,000 canonizing the country’s first Hispanic saint.
Throughout, he waded into some of the most contentious issues in American politics and the church, on subjects such as immigration and the sex abuse scandals that plagued U.S. Catholicism.
He started in a characteristic display of his common-man touch, arriving at the White House in a small Fiat 500 as he was welcomed by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The formal welcome also skipped the traditional 21-gun salute for a head of state in deference to his standing as a religious leader.
“In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, 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.
In brief remarks, the pope spoke about the need to take on poverty, care for immigrants and combat global warming.
“As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said slowly in accented English.
“When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history,” he added. “We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”
About 11,000 ticketed guests waving papal and American flags cheered on the White House lawn, some arriving as early as 5 a.m. The 78-year-old pope appeared to walk slowly and with some difficulty. Vatican aides said he has sciatica and a bad knee.
The pope made only a passing mention of other hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage, saying he supports “the institutions of marriage and the family at this critical moment in the history of our civilization.”
Outside the White House, some protesters were visible, gathered on the edge of the cut-off streets holdings signs proclaiming, “Pope Francis: Ordain women” and “Francis: Please Ordain Women Priests.”
After the ceremony, Obama and Francis met for about 40 minutes privately in the Oval Office, using a Vatican translator. White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say what the two men spoke about.
Obama presented the pope with a sculpture of an ascending dove, an international symbol of peace as well as the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, which included an original armature bar from the Statue of Liberty and a personalized inscription. He also gave him a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint.
Francis then took a brief ride past thousands outside the White House in the open-air popemobile. Throngs of supporters, many not Catholic, came out before dawn to catch a glimpse of him.
After leaving the cheering crowds, Francis told church leaders in a meeting at St. Matthew’s Cathedral that they had a duty to ensure the sex abuse scandal that shook the U.S. Catholic Church would never happen again. He told bishops that he had not come “to judge or to lecture” them.
“I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you,” he told the church leaders at a prayer service in the Cathedral of St. Matthew.
His message on issues and his personal appeal endeared him to Americans seeing him for the first time.
“People don’t necessarily just see him as a religious figure,” said Natalie Ortiz, a student at George Washington University. “He’s not just talking about, ‘Oh, everyone praise God,’ but he’s talking about things that matter. Because he knows he’s so influential, he’s using that to promote things that actually matter like politics, climate change.”
The popular Argentina-born pope has been widely credited with pushing to help the world’s poor and softening the tone of the church in its opposition to homosexuality and easing the granting of marriage annulments. But Francis told reporters traveling on the papal plane _ dubbed Shepherd One _ that he was not aligned with any particular political movement, though critics call him “liberal.”
“I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said. “I follow the church, and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”
Later Wednesday, the pope canonized 18th-century missionary Junipero Serra in a Spanish-language Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Serra is the first saint canonized on U.S. soil, and church leaders lauded him as a Hispanic founding father. He founded nine missions in California and has been a controversial figure for Native Americans in the state, who say the mission system he established enslaved their ancestors, and along with Spanish colonization and disease decimated their tribes.
“The canonization shows that the Catholic Church and the pope continue to view indigenous people as less than human,” said Corrina Gould, a member of the Chochenyo Ohlone people in Northern California who organized a “Day of Mourning” for about 150 protesters of Serra’s canonization at Mission Dolores in San Francisco.
Francis defended Serra.
“Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who mistreated and abused it, mistreatments which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt they cause in the life of many people,” the pope said in his native Spanish, a nod to the growing importance of Hispanic Americans in the U.S. Catholic Church.
Wearing a cape of feathers, Andrew Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, carried a relic containing a bone fragment of the saint to the altar. Galvan’s ancestors were among the first to be baptized at Serra’s missions.
In addition to Latin and Spanish, there was also a reading in Chochenyo, a Native American language spoken by the people Serra evangelized. The petition portion of the Mass was read in Korean, American Sign Language, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Igbo, and Haitian Creole.
Today, Francis was to make the first address by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress before appearing on the balcony of the West Front of the Capitol to greet a crowd expected to be in the tens of thousands.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced Wednesday that he is circulating a letter to his colleagues to nominate Francis as the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his commitment to peace, his leadership in climate change and his stand for human rights.
The pope also plans stops in Philadelphia and New York, where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly and a multireligious service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.