Pope Benedict XVI visits White House

April 16, 2008 4:40:19 PM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI moved Wednesday from a jubilant White House visit where he defended religion in the public square to a contemplative prayer service at a national Roman Catholic shrine, where he was expected to tell bishops that they must heal the suffering caused by clergy sex abuse.Benedict arrived at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to deliver remarks to hundreds of U.S. prelates during a vespers service.

It was the end of a heady day for Benedict, who drew an enthralled crowd of 13,500 people to a South Lawn arrival ceremony at the White House earlier in the day. The event turned into an 81st birthday party for the pontiff, complete with singing and a cake prepared by the White House pastry chef.

But the warm feelings didn't stop the pope from gently nudging the U.S. in a White House speech to use diplomacy to resolve international disputes. And differences on other issues also were apparent.

"America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes," the pope said. "I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress."

Benedict and President Bush spoke alone in the Oval Office for 45 minutes after the ceremony, and a joint statement said the two "reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents."

It also said the leaders "touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights," a reference White House press secretary Dana Perino could not explain.

Benedict has been critical of harsh interrogation methods, telling a meeting of the Vatican's office for social justice last September that, while a country has an obligation to keep its citizens safe, prisoners must never be demeaned or tortured.

On Iraq, the discussion steered away from the war itself to focus primarily on worries for the Christian minority in the Muslim-majority country, Perino said. Other topics included human rights, religious freedom, fighting poverty and disease in Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Lebanon and terrorism.

Wednesday's session marked the 25th meeting between a Roman Catholic pope and a U.S. president, conferences that have spanned 89 years, five pontiffs and 11 American leaders.

Benedict told the appreciative crowd that religion belongs in the public square.

"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate," he said. "It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate."

In brief remarks on the South Lawn, Bush showed off America, ticking off what he said are its best virtues, calling it a nation of prayer and compassion and one that is the most "innovative, creative and dynamic country on Earth" but also among the most religious.

But while acting like the proud custodian of his country, Bush also seemed to suggest that America could use a little tough talking-to by the pontiff.

"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and that each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary," the president said, drawing sustained applause.

Bush also said Americans should see Benedict's U.S. tour as a reminder to "distinguish between simple right and wrong."

The pope not only drew admirers to the White House but also on the streets of Washington, where crowds gathered to watch his motorcade pass following the session there. Another throng waited at the basilica Wednesday afternoon.

Benedict was to speak in the oldest section of the basilica, called the Crypt Church, which is designed to feel low and dark as a reminder of the early days of Christianity. For the second time in as many days, he was expected to address the issue of sex abuse by members of the clergy _ confronting a scandal that has cost the U.S. church over $2 billion, much of it in the last six years.

The pope addressed the problem on his flight to the U.S., saying that he would fight to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood.

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