TOPICS > Nation > Pope Francis in the U.S.

Pope Francis draws big crowds and high spirits in Washington

September 23, 2015 at 6:50 PM EDT
Thousands turned out Wednesday to experience Pope Francis' visit to Washington. At the White House and at Mass held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the pontiff addressed the urgency of global warming, respect for traditional marriage and the burden of sexual abuse within the church. William Brangham talks to Judy Woodruff about the controversial canonization of Junipero Serra.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Washington went from a full-time focus on politics and government today to a full-time focus on Pope Francis.

William Brangham reports on this first full day of the pope’s first visit to the United States.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The South Lawn of the White House was a sea of expectant faces this morning, as more than 11,000 turned out to witness the sights and the sounds of a full White House welcome.

The pomp and circumstance contrasted with the pontiff’s own modest arrival in a small gray Fiat. He was greeted by the president and first lady and by the cheering throng.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Holy Father, on behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I should explain that our backyard is not typically this crowded.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Obama used the occasion to commend Pope Francis for his calls to action on several fronts, in the president’s words — quote — “shaking us out of complacency.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You remind us that the lord’s most powerful message is mercy. 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.

And, Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president also thanked the pope for assisting the diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba. Francis then delivered his own message in a soft voice and halting English, most notably on the challenge of a warming planet.

POPE FRANCIS: 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.


POPE FRANCIS: When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That appeal seemed sure to please the political left, but the pope took a conservative tack, too, reaffirming that Roman Catholics want their belief in traditional marriage respected.

POPE FRANCIS: With countless other people of goodwill, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty.


POPE FRANCIS: That freedom reminds one of America’s most precious possessions.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The pope and president then moved inside for a closed door 40-minute meeting in the Oval Office. And from there, Francis moved on to a parade in his honor. In his signature Popemobile, he traveled along the National Mall and was greeted by thousands of screaming supporters.

At one point, a young girl ran through security barricades, the motorcade stopped, and, at the pope’s urging, Secret Service agents brought the child to him. After that, it was on to St. Matthew’s Cathedral to meet with American bishops.

Francis led a prayer service, and under a mosaic of Saint Matthew, he spoke in Italian of the need for the American church to emerge from its long-running sexual abuse scandal.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you, and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims, in the knowledge that, in healing, we too are healed and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All this was preamble for the main event of the papal day, a canonization mass held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Some 25,000 people poured onto the grounds to hear the pope’s words:

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): We are heirs to a bold missionary spirit of so many men and women who preferred not to be shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving. We are indebted to a tradition, a chain of witnesses who have made it possible for the good news of the Gospel to be in every generation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As part of the service, the pope conferred sainthood on Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain who brought Catholicism to California in the 1700s. It marked the first canonization held on U.S. soil.

But the move has not been met with universal praise. American Indian groups and others argue that Serra helped wipe out indigenous populations and enslaved converts.

The mass capped off the pope’s first full day in Washington. Tomorrow, he will address a joint meeting of Congress before going on to New York and Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for more, I spoke with William a short time ago during that mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

So, William, you have watched the pope arrive for this mass. What have you seen?


It’s just been a tremendous response that the pope has been getting here. We have been at the National Shrine for the last several hours. Incredible security to get through here. And most of the families that we met have been waiting here since 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 this morning to get in, but everyone seemed to be in very good spirits. They were thrilled to see the pope up close.

And when he came in at about 5:00 tonight, he drove his Popemobile right through the middle of the crowd. And it was an interesting reaction. The group that are in the seated section, sort of closer to the Basilica itself, offered very polite, muted applause for him.

The crowd in the standing-room area went absolutely wild for him, just enthusiastic, erupting, cheering, waving, and just a really tremendous reaction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it seems that he’s the one who’s enjoying this a lot as well. I saw him this morning reaching out, shaking hands, a big smile on his face. Then, this afternoon, he asked the security people to bring children over to him, so he could kiss them while he was in the Popemobile, downtown Washington.

It’s very much a two-way street here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I think that’s right. I mean, I think he obviously feeds off of the reaction. He’s known as this pope who just wants to have impromptu meetings with people and very much loves the serendipity of those moments. Obviously, that poses great complications for people who are trying to protect him and to keep him on schedule. But we saw a little bit of that as he came through.

I mean, I think, obviously, this is a 78-year-old man. He’s a little tired. He wasn’t — I think, by the end of the day today, he was a little bit tired. It felt like most of his mass tonight also was a very subdued affair. But, clearly, he’s getting some energy from the crowds here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, William, about this canonization of a Spanish missionary in California. It’s something that’s been pretty controversial. Tell us about this.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Junipero Serra is the man who’s now the most recent Catholic saint added to the pantheon of saints.

And he is beloved by Catholics for being an incredible evangelist. He came up from Mexico and California in the 1700s and converted and evangelized to a lot of indigenous people who were living there at the time. Now, of course, conversion and evangelization is one thing when you’re looking at it from the Catholic perspective.

When you’re looking at it from the Native American perspective, that can seem like a very different interaction. And he had been criticized by indigenous groups for Serra’s very rough treatment of these people. So, the pope has endured some controversy. And in the past, the pope has apologized for the sins of colonization, as he says it.

But he still believes that Serra’s mission is a powerful one and one he wants to hold up to the entire Catholic world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, William Brangham following Pope Francis as he conducts a mass here in Washington, thank you, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thank you, Judy.