Pope Francis greeted by Obama with ornate White House ceremony

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President Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the Unites States Wednesday morning at an ornate White House ceremony in which he sought to subtly link the pope's values to his own political agenda.

“You remind us that 'the Lord’s most powerful message' is mercy,” Obama said at one point to an estimated crowd of 15,000 in front of the famous South Portico. 

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“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.”

In perhaps the most explicitly political point in his address, Obama, with the pope seated to his left, said, "Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet — God’s magnificent gift to us. We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations.”

In his own remarks following Obama, Francis touched on several political points, including immigration and climate change.

He praised Obama for reducing air pollution at a "critical moment in history."
 
"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," the pope said, calling the Earth "our common home."
 
Francis's views on climate change have drawn approval from liberals and consternation from conservatives.

The pope also referred to the United States as a country built by immigrant families.

Pope Francis's most high-profile political engagement during his six-day trip to the United States will take place Thursday when he is to address a joint session of Congress. As Obama noted at the beginning of his remarks, this is the first time Francis has visited the United States in his life.

The Wednesday-morning ceremony showed White House pomp in full effect, including military bands and a crowd that included Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.

The pope traveled from the Vatican’s Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Northwest Washington in a modest Fiat, which drove up to the White House.

After the pope emerged to shake hands with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, bands played the anthem of the Vatican and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I believe the excitement around your visit must be attributed not only to your role as pope, but to your unique qualities as a person,” Obama said in his remarks. “In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’s teachings.”

Obama said the excitement around the pontiff's visit “reveals how much all Americans, from every background and of every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America.”

Polls show widespread approval of the pope among Americans, who appear to regard him more highly than his predecessor, Pope Benedict.

Later today, the pope is expected to participate in a parade in downtown Washington. He will also celebrate mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.

The pope came to Washington from Cuba, and Obama acknowledged his work in resetting diplomatic relations between Havana and the United States.

“We are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people, which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere and a better life for the Cuban people,” the president said.

This story was updated at 10:12 a.m.