Pope, President at ease in the Oval Office

(Matters India) The Welcome Ceremony for Pope Francis at the White House on Wednesday morning was attended by some 15,000 people. Amongst them was Vatican Radio’s Seàn-Patrick Lovett who is travelling with the Pope on this 10th Apostolic Visit abroad to Cuba and to the United States.

One thing is for certain: the Oval Office in “House of Cards” is bigger than the original.

Aside from that, everything is where it should be: the portrait of Abraham Lincoln over the fireplace, the grandfather clock in the corner, and the Presidential “Resolute Desk” (you can Google it to find out why it’s called that) backing onto the Rose Garden.

And seated in two high-back brown leather chairs, looking very much at ease in each other’s company, were two of the world’s most influential men: the Pope and the President. Their comfortable, fireside demeanour was not just due to the fact they’ve met before (on March 27th last year in the Vatican), but because, if you look at their respective speeches on the White House lawn, it appears they were saying very much the same thing. Each one reinforced the other’s position on the issue of climate change, echoed one another’s call to focus on the needy, and repeated that the liberty to practice one’s religion is the basis of all freedoms. “You shake our conscience from slumber,” said President Obama, “you give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just and more free.”

Earlier, when welcoming the Pope, the President had quipped that his “back garden” (the sprawling South Lawn) isn’t always this full. In fact, over 15,000 people gathered under gloriously sunny skies to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. For many of them, a glimpse was all they got. People I spoke to said they had flown in from all over the country (one said she had come from Colombia), arriving at the White House before 2 a.m. in the morning and facing gruelling security checks – all to see the Pope they say is “changing the way people think about the Catholic Church”.

The fact that many of the people present at the welcome ceremony were first generation Americans was clear from the applause that broke out when Pope Francis said: “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families”.

Another highlight of his speech for those present was when he repeated the words of an American icon to express the urgency of healing the planet for our children: “To use a telling phrase of the Rev. Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honour it,” he said.

The welcome ceremony concluded with a song by the St Augustine’s Gospel Choir and with the Pope being given a brief tour of the White House which concluded – yes, in the Oval Office. It was a private meeting but the handful of journalists allowed in for the photo-opportunity couldn’t resist asking what they would be talking about. “We were talking about how particularly well behaved you are today”, responded the President – and the Pope smiled. Or maybe he was really wondering where the “Resolute Desk” got its name.

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