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Pope Francis touches on hot-button issues at White House ceremony

"Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation," Pope Francis said during his first U.S. visit.

Pope Francis touched on a number of hot-button issues on his first full day in the United States, delivering two big speeches that referenced climate change, religious liberty, immigration, and abortion. 

The day in Washington D.C. began with an elaborate welcoming ceremony with President Obama on the White House lawn, followed by a parade where Francis was greeted by thousands of spectators. He then led  prayer service with U.S. bishops at St. Matthews Cathedral, where he alluded to the decades-long clergy sex abuse scandal and urged members to be inclusive and help those in need.  

The Argentine-born pope, delivered his first address in the morning in front of 11,000 ticketed guests saying in clear, halting English, “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.” 

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He also took the opportunity to say he supported President Obama’s efforts to address climate change — an effort many Republicans have opposed. Francis’ remarks come after releasing an environmental encyclical last year calling for immediate action on climate change.

“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” he said. “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 ... We are living at a critical moment of history,” Francis added.

The pontiff arrived at the White House in an unpretentious Fiat, stepping out onto a red carpet spanning the South Lawn, where he was greeted by the president and first lady Michelle Obama. A Marine band played the pontifical and national anthems before President Obama delivered opening remarks.

Obama praised the pope, describing him as a man of humility, simplicity and generosity, and someone who was “shaking us out of our complacency.” The commander-in-chief also touched on his own agenda, including climate change and his controversial move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet — God’s magnificent gift to us,” Obama said. He added, “We are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginnings with the Cuban people.”

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The pope discussed religious liberty, insisting American Catholics want a “truly tolerant” society but added any such society must “respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.” Religious freedom, of course, has become a big issue in the U.S. — with conservatives lobbying for religious exemptions when it comes to gay marriage and Obamacare's contraception requirement.

Francis defended traditional values, noting that we are at "a critical moment in the history of our civilization," and mentioned his upcoming visit to Philadelphia where he will "celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family." 

As with his views on climate change, the pope has parted ways from his predecessors on several issues. In 2013, he asked “Who am I to judge?” with reference to gay people —although he has yet to take any specific action on the matter. Last month, he broke from traditional Catholic teachings, declaring the church should do more to embrace those who follow the religion but decide to divorce and then remarry.

After his remarks at the White House, the pope participated in parade on the National Mall — traveling in a retrofitted Jeep Wranger — where he waved to thousands of spectators, even stopping to kiss a few babies along the way. He then gave a prayer service with U.S. bishops at St. Matthews Cathedral, and notably alluded to the decades-long clergy sex abuse scandal that has given the Roman Catholic Church a black eye. 

"I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you," said Francis, adding, "And I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims ... and to work to ensure such crimes will never be repeated." He also urged bishops to not to shy away from challenging issues and spoke out against abortion.

"The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man's predatory relationship with nature — at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters," said Francis. "It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent." 

Later in the day, the pope will hold a canonization Mass in Spanish for 25,000 ticket holders at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. On Thursday, the pope will address Congress and on Friday he’ll travel to New York before going on to Philadelphia for the weekend.