Pope Francis speaks on the south lawn of the White House Wednesday.

Pope Francis speaks on the south lawn of the White House Wednesday. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

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Pope Francis Won't Tread Lightly on the Issues that Divide Washington

The pope puts immigration, refugees, and climate change on the top of his agenda.

By the second sen­tence of his speech Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Pope Fran­cis made his in­ten­tion clear: He’s diving head-first in­to heavy polit­ic­al is­sues dur­ing his vis­it in Wash­ing­ton.

The pope opened his re­marks, giv­en from the South Lawn of the White House, by identi­fy­ing him­self as “the son of an im­mig­rant fam­ily” and prais­ing Amer­ica’s im­mig­rant her­it­age: “I am happy to be a guest in this coun­try which was largely built by such fam­il­ies.”

The pontiff also wasted no time con­grat­u­lat­ing the pres­id­ent on his ef­fort to take ac­tion on cli­mate change, an agenda that has pro­voked fierce cri­ti­cism from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

“Ac­cept­ing the ur­gency, it seems clear to me also that cli­mate change is a prob­lem we can no longer be left to a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion,” Fran­cis said. “When it comes to the care of our com­mon home we are liv­ing at a crit­ic­al mo­ment of his­tory. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sus­tain­able and in­teg­ral de­vel­op­ment, for we know that things can change.”

The South Lawn ce­re­mony form­ally wel­comed Fran­cis to Amer­ica, after Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden greeted the pontiff on Tues­day when his plane, known as Shep­herd One touched down at Joint Base An­drews in Mary­land. Obama and the pontiff will meet privately in the Oval Of­fice fol­low­ing the South Lawn ce­re­mony.

The two men can agree on a lot: The need to ad­dress cli­mate change is a ma­jor is­sue they both con­sider a pri­or­ity. But there are also areas such as abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage where Obama and Fran­cis do not agree.

Wed­nes­day’s form­al ce­re­mony was pre­ceded and ac­com­pan­ied by mu­sic from the Mar­ine Corps Band, a mark of how much more elab­or­ate the roll out was than those staged for oth­er heads of state this year.

The pres­id­ent noted the sub­stan­tial South Lawn audi­ence at the top of his re­marks, in­dic­at­ing that it’s a test­a­ment to the Pope him­self. There were more than 11,000 people at­tend­ing the ce­re­mony, ac­cord­ing to a pool re­port.

“Our back­yard is not typ­ic­ally this crowded, but the size and the spir­it of today’s gath­er­ing is just a small re­flec­tion of the deep de­vo­tion of some 70 mil­lion Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics,” Obama said, and “the way your mes­sage of love and hope has in­spired so many people, across our na­tion and around the world.”

Wash­ing­ton has been anxiously an­ti­cip­at­ing the pope’s ar­rival. His vis­it this week marks his first time ever set­ting foot in the United States. It will also mark the first time that any pope has spoken to a joint meet­ing of the House and Sen­ate. Fran­cis is widely ex­pec­ted to urge Con­gress to speak out in fa­vor of pro­tect­ing mi­grants and refugees as well as ac­tion to tackle the threat of cli­mate change when he speaks to Con­gress on Thursday.

Obama had strong words of praise for the pope in his re­marks Wed­nes­day, de­scrib­ing how Fran­cis’s per­son­al­ity, not only his po­s­i­tion, has gen­er­ated “ex­cite­ment” in the na­tion’s cap­it­al.

Obama said Fran­cis calls “on all of us, Cath­ol­ic and non-Cath­ol­ic alike, to put the ‘least of these’ at the cen­ter of our con­cerns” and to be mer­ci­ful.

“That means wel­com­ing the stranger with em­pathy and a truly open heart—from the refugee who flees war-torn lands, to the im­mig­rant who leaves home in search of a bet­ter life,” Obama said. And the pope re­minds “us of the costs of war, par­tic­u­larly on the power­less and de­fense­less, and urge us to­ward the im­per­at­ive of peace.”

The pres­id­ent used his open­ing re­marks to draw com­mon­al­it­ies between his polit­ic­al agenda and that of the pope’s, touch­ing on Fran­cis’s sup­port for im­proved re­la­tions with Cuba and his em­phas­is on en­vir­on­ment­al stew­ard­ship. Obama also em­phas­ized their shared be­lief in re­li­gious free­dom—a sub­ject that’s pop­u­lar in the GOP pres­id­en­tial field.

Fran­cis also stressed in­clus­iv­ity: “Mr. Pres­id­ent, to­geth­er with their fel­low cit­izens, 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.”

After meet­ing with the pres­id­ent on Wed­nes­day, Fran­cis is sched­uled to give a mass at the Ba­silica of the Na­tion­al Shrine of the Im­macu­late Con­cep­tion, the largest Ro­man Cath­ol­ic church in Amer­ica. Dur­ing the mass, he’ll be can­on­iz­ing Ju­ni­pero Serra, a Span­ish mis­sion­ary who worked in 18th cen­tury Cali­for­nia.