A day of firsts: Pope Francis’ visit to Washington

Pope Francis greets schoolchildren before leaving the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington.

Pope Francis greets schoolchildren before leaving the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington.

(Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

It was a day of firsts for U.S. Catholics, as the first pope from Latin America spent his first full day ever in the United States, presiding over his first Mass here — and canonizing the 18th century missionary known as the Apostle of California.

Massive, roaring crowds lined the streets as Pope Francis traversed Washington, D.C., in his “popemobile” and a Fiat hatchback on a sun-drenched day that mixed with politics and pageantry.

In speeches, he touched on a wide range of controversies, including climate change, immigration and — most divisively — the priest sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the church for more than decade and led to large declines in U.S. membership.


The day began with a welcoming ceremony attended by 11,000 people on the South Lawn of the White House. Speaking first, President Obama praised the pontiff’s humble style and powerful advocacy for the poor.

“From the busy streets of Buenos Aires to remote villages in Kenya, Catholic organizations serve the poor, minister to prisoners, build schools and homes, and operate orphanages and hospitals,” Obama said. “And just as the church has stood with those struggling to break the chains of poverty, it has given voice and hope to those seeking to break the chains of violence and oppression.”

He noted how Francis’ personal touch had earned him admiration throughout the world and had set a “profound moral example” in challenging people of all faiths to follow God’s call. Obama also noted another first: that Francis is the first pope “to share an encyclical through a Twitter account.”

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

When Francis took the lectern, he alluded to his support for gentler immigration policies by introducing himself as “the son of an immigrant family” and a “guest of this country, which was largely built by such families.”

Then he quickly changed the topic to one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics: climate change.


“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. “When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history.”

While praising Obama for efforts to reduce air pollution, he said much more action is needed to protect the Earth for those who will inherit it. Invoking Martin Luther King Jr., he said: “We can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

From the White House, he proceeded in a parade route past President’s Park and the National Mall, finally making his way to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for a midday prayer with U.S. bishops.

“This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity,” said Nick Fontana of Washington, who was among the multitudes of Catholic pilgrims who came to get a glimpse of the pope. Fontana was accompanied by his wife, Wanda, and 7-year-old daughter, Virginia, a Catholic school student allowed to miss class today.

Peru native Mimaribel Guillen, 50, of Paterson, N.J., came with her friend Max Rodriguez, 51, of Mexico. Holding American and papal flags, she said having a pope from Latin America was special.

“We think he is going to think more about our problems,” she said. “He cannot do everything but maybe he can make a little change.”

The city was so crowded that many federal employees were instructed to work from home.

It was the pope’s speech at St. Matthews that caused the biggest stir of the day. In his remarks to the bishops, he appeared to praise their handling of the sexual abuse scandal, comments that victims took as an affront.

“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,” Francis said.

Despite his soaring popularity, Francis has faced criticism from sexual abuse victims that he has done too little to make amends or prevent more abuse.

Soon after taking over the leadership of the church in 2013, Francis created a commission to develop policies for protecting children from pedophile priests. He also pledged to create a Vatican tribunal to investigate bishops who covered up abuse.

But the church has continued to fight sexual abuse lawsuits and refused to open its records identifying thousands of priests who have been accused. It has also continued to oppose efforts to reform statute-of-limitation laws that have shielded priests from prosecution.

The pope’s final public stop of the day was the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. With a crowd of 25,000 gathered outside, he declared Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, a saint.

An altar was erected outside the basilica, the largest Catholic church in the nation, to accommodate the huge crowd wishing to see the ceremony that made Serra the 11th U.S. saint. Francis then celebrated Mass in Spanish, viewed by many as a nod to the growing presence of Latinos in the U.S. Catholic Church.

The canonization has been a source of controversy, with many Native Americans describing Serra as an oppressor who helped destroy the indigenous people of what is now California.

Francis’ six-day trip continues Thursday morning at the Capitol, where he will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.

He has tried to distance himself from ideology. While his positions on immigration and climate change and his critiques of inequality and the excesses of capitalism endear him to the political left, his strict adherence to church doctrine opposing abortion and gay marriage put him on common ground with conservatives.

The 78-year-old pope was born and grew up in Argentina, where he spent the early part of his career in the clergy.

He was selected by the cardinals after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who had failed to lift the church from a deepening rut of scandal and a growing sense that the church was out of touch with modern times.

Francis has emphasized service to the poor and the forgotten and preached forgiveness over condemnation. His humble style made him an instant star. He eschewed the papal apartment and traditional red velvet footwear in favor of simple living quarters in the Vatican and basic black shoes. He blessed a beggar by kissing his feet.

“Who am I to judge?” he famously said in 2013 while talking to reporters about gay priests.

From Washington, Francis will travel to New York and Philadelphia before returning to Rome on Sunday.

The last pope to come to the United States was Benedict in 2008. Pope Paul VI visited once in 1965, while Pope John Paul II visited seven times in the 1980s and 1990s.

Zarembo reported from Los Angeles and Memoli from Washington, D.C. Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.


Pope Francis arrives in the U.S.

Pope gets ready to make Junipero Serra a saint, but not in California

California Catholics spent months trying for tickets to see pope in U.S.