POPE FRANCIS has called on the United States to take stronger steps to combat climate change, at the start of a five-day visit to the country, his first as pontiff.
Speaking to crowds of 11,000 outside the White House, in Washington, DC., yesterday, the Pope praised President Obama’s initiative to reduce air pollution as “encouraging”, but said that further action was needed.
“Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. “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 President thanked him for reminding the country of its “sacred obligation” to protect the planet. “We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and . . . to preserve our precious world for future generations,” he said.
The Pope is known for being outspoken on the environment. In his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, published in June, he wrote that a “bold cultural revolution” was needed to prevent “debris, desolation, and filth” being left to future generations (News, 26 June).
Before delivering his speech yesterday, in English, the 78-year-old Pope embraced members of the crowd of young people who had gathered to witness the welcoming ceremony on the first full day of his visit. A five-year-old daughter of illegal immigrants managed to squeeze past barriers to deliver him a handwritten letter explaining their troubles.
After 40 minutes of private talks with the President, Pope Francis met the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States in St Matthew’s Cathedral, urging them to foster unity within the Church “through the attractive light and warmth of love”, and by avoiding “harsh and divisive language”.
He later celebrated mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he canonised the 18th-century Spanish missionary Fr Junipero Serra, who brought Christianity to California. The move was criticised by some Native Americans for phasing out indigenous people and their culture.
On his way to New York City, in the afternoon, the Pope made an unscheduled stop at a convent, to show his support for a lawsuit taken out by the nuns against the President’s health-care law.
The nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act over the mandatory provision of contraception within the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The nuns must provide insurance coverage for their employees to support contraception, and so violate their beliefs, or face fines. A spokesperson for the Vatican said that the stop-off was “brief, but symbolic”.
The Pope arrived in New York on Thursday evening. He was due to address the UN General Assembly on Friday morning, before the official opening of the UN summit. He will then pray at the Ground Zero Memorial, pay a visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, and later celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden.
On Saturday morning he will fly to Philadelphia, where he will be greeted by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and the Holy See Permanent Observer to the UN, Archbishop Bernadito Auza. The Pope will later hold a mass for the World Meeting of Families.
There are currently 80 million people baptised as Roman Catholics in the United States. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholic, and 31 per cent of members of Congress. Six RC Republicans are running for President — the largest number in history.
The Pope, who has 22 million followers on Twitter, is considered to be more popular with Americans than his predecessor. But many on the right disagree with his intervention in US relations with Cuba, a Communist country. The Pope’s visit came directly after a three-day visit to Cuba, where he encouraged a new “revolution of tenderness” between the nations (News, 25 September).
His calls for action on climate change have also been criticised as “ridiculous” for being intertwined with his religious duty, by some from the Republican party.