Pope Francis, President Obama to seek common ground in the Oval Office

2015-09-23 08:33
Pope Francis gestures from the top of the stairs of his plane as he departs the airport in Santiago, Cuba. (Ismael Francisco, AP)

Pope Francis gestures from the top of the stairs of his plane as he departs the airport in Santiago, Cuba. (Ismael Francisco, AP)

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Washington - In a moment weaving together strands of politics, religion and emotion, Pope Francis and President Barack Obama are set to meet in the grandeur of the Oval Office to advance causes dear to them both, eagerly watched by a nation that can't get enough of the humble man who is rejuvenating American Catholicism while giving heartburn to its conservatives.

Francis will deliver his opening remarks to the United States on Wednesday on the White House lawn. Later in the morning, he will head off to speak to America's bishops, an eagerly awaited speech given a certain disconnect between Francis' focus on social justice and a merciful church and the culture wars that America's bishops have waged in recent years over abortion and gay rights.

From the instant the white-robed and broad-grinned Francis landed in the US, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and clambered into a modest, charcoal-gray Fiat on Tuesday, his visit electrified wonky Washington, a city that can be jaded about the comings and goings of world figures.

Washington was the first stop on the pope's six-day, three-city visit to the US And from the hundreds on hand for his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base to the clumps of spectators who gathered outside the Vatican diplomatic mission where the pope is staying, to the 15 000 expected at Wednesday's White House arrival ceremony, people of all faiths wanted to be a part of it.

"These moments matter," said May Lynne Duncan, who battled traffic from suburban Virginia to bring her two daughters to stand outside the nunciature.

For all of the oh-wow enthusiasm attending the visit, though, the pope and the president, two men with overlapping but far-from-identical agendas had serious matters to attend to.

'I'm ready'

Even before he touched down on what is his first visit to the United States, Francis found himself fending off conservative criticism of his economic views. He told reporters on his flight from Cuba that some people may have an inaccurate impression that he is "a little bit more left-leaning."

"I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church," he said.

As for conservatives who question whether he is truly Catholic, he added jokingly: "If I have to recite the Creed, I'm ready."

Obama, for his part, was anxious to add a boost to his own efforts to combat climate change, fight income inequality and promote social justice, among other things, by finding common cause with the pope. The two leaders differ sharply on other issues, though, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and White House officials said the two would face their differences honestly.

From Francis' vantage point, his next stop after the White House was perhaps more critical. The 78-year-old pontiff was meeting with America's 450-strong bishops' conference at the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle.

Many US bishops have struggled to come to terms with Francis' new social justice-minded direction of the church. Nearly all were appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who prioritised drawing clearer boundaries for Catholic behaviour and belief in the face of legalised abortion, advances in gay rights and the exodus of so many Westerners from organised religion.

The American church spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year through its social service agencies, and for years has sought immigration reform to reunite families, shelter refugees and give the poor the chance at a better life. However, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has increasingly put its resources behind high-profile fights over abortion, contraception and gay marriage, as bishops found themselves more often on the losing side of the culture wars.

The first pope from the Americas also was acting Wednesday to canonise a Spanish friar who brought the Catholic faith to California. Francis was to celebrate the Mass of canonisation for Junipero Serra in Spanish, and several thousand of the 25 000 tickets to the event were set aside for Spanish-speaking people, many from California. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception erected a temporary sanctuary on the east portico for the Mass.

On Thursday, Francis delivers the first papal address ever to Congress, speaking to Republican-majority legislators deeply at odds with Obama on issues such as gay rights, immigration and abortion, climate change, the same issues that are roiling the early months of the presidential campaign.

For all the focus on Francis' speeches, though, the pope's less scripted moments in meeting with immigrants, prisoners and the homeless could prove more memorable. He'll meet with poor immigrants and other clients of Catholic Charities in Washington and with prisoners in Pennsylvania. He is known to veer off schedule for unscripted encounters.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  pope francis  |  us  |  gay rights  |  religion

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