Pope Francis made his first public remarks since arriving in the United States at a White House appearance with President Obama this morning, highlighting America's tradition of welcoming immigrants and praising the president's climate-change initiatives but also seemingly alluding to the ongoing controversy over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate in a short speech.
"As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families," Francis said after Obama greeted him. Later the pope addressed Obama directly: "Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. 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." Said Francis: "To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."
Here's the section of Francis' remarks that seemed to obliquely reference the controversy over whether religious employers should have to provide contraceptive coverage:
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. 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. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.
(Religious organizations are entirely exempt from covering contraception for their employers. However, under the current rules, they must notify the federal government that they are taking this exemption so that the government can step in to provide contraceptive coverage to these employers. Many religious organizations assert that this accommodation does not go far enough, because they remain complicit in allowing their employers to use forbidden contraception. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been active on the issue.)
Perhaps more memorable than the speech itself was the pope's impromptu approach, before leaving for the White House in a small Fiat, to the crowd that had gathered outside the Vatican "nunciature" where he stayed overnight. Public enthusiasm for the pope is significant, as you can see in this photo from his arrival in the U.S. on Tuesday:
Outside the nunciature this morning, Francis stopped to speak with/hug/touch a number of the people who had waited for him.
Respect for the pueblo fiel—which literally means "the faithful people" and connotes respect for the common man and woman—has been perhaps the most prominent theme of Francis' public statements since well before he was named pope.
CNN reports that some members of the crowds in the area of the National Mall—where the pope is set to proceed momentarily in his signature popemobile—have been doing "the wave."