Updated: September 23, 2015 10:23 PM GMT
Pope Francis, U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave from the south portico of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23. (Photo by CNS)
Pope Francis introduced himself to President Barack Obama and all people of the United States as a "son of an immigrant family" arriving in the United States for the first time to learn from others and to share from his own experience.
In a country the pope said he knows was "largely built" by immigrant families, he made his debut speech to Americans Sept. 23 on the South Lawn of the White House with some 20,000 people in attendance.
Obama told him, "Our backyard is not typically this crowded," but the attendance on a bright, sunny morning was a reflection of the devotion of U.S. Catholics "and the way your message of love and hope has inspired so many people, across our nation and around the world."
While obviously honored by the welcome, Pope Francis was clear in issuing several challenges, including by publicly voicing his support for the U.S. bishops' defense of religious freedom. The bishops have objected to the Obama Administration's efforts to force almost all employers, including many Catholic institutions, to fund contraception coverage in health insurance policies.
"Mr. President," the pope told him, American Catholics want "a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive," one that safeguards individual rights and rejects "every form of unjust discrimination," but also respects the deeply held religious beliefs of citizens and the moral and ethical obligations that flow from them.
Obama, in his remarks, spoke about religious freedom as well, but referred only to the defense of Christians being persecuted and even killed for their beliefs around the world.
The pope arrived in the United States from Cuba, and both he and the president spoke about efforts to normalize relations between the two countries after more than five decades of tension and estrangement.
"The efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice and freedom," Pope Francis told the president.
Although Pope Francis consistently has downplayed his role in encouraging and supporting Obama and Raul Castro's talks, the president told him, "Holy Father, we are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people, which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere and a better life for the Cuban people."
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