Shortly before 10.30 a.m. local time today, Benedict XVI arrived at the White House, official residence of U.S. President George W. Bush who, together with his wife Laura, was on hand to welcome the Pontiff.
The Pope, who celebrates his 81st birthday today, delivered an address from a podium on the South Lawn of the White House. Among those present, apart from the civil and political authorities, were U.S. cardinals, the Presidium of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the auxiliary bishops of Washington, and the bishop of Arlington within whose diocese is the cemetery in which thousands of U.S. servicemen and various presidents are buried. The ceremony was attended by a total of around 5,000 people.
Having expressed his appreciation for President Bush's invitation "to visit this great country", the Holy Father recalled how his journey coincides with the 200th anniversary of the elevation of the country's first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, to a metropolitan archdiocese. He went on: "I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society.
"America's Catholics", he added, "have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. ... I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation.
"From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator". In the process which forged the soul of the nation, "religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations".
Referring to the many religious traditions present in the United States, Benedict XVI recalled how "not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard".
He continued: "As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.
"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience - almost every town in this country has its monuments honouring those who sacrificed their lives in defence of freedom, both at home and abroad. 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. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate".
"The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person", said the Holy Father, because "she is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things" and gives us "the hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish", he added, "when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.
"For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community", the Pope concluded, noting how "America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. 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".
The welcome ceremony over, the Pope held a private meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office. He them travelled back to the apostolic nunciature in Washington where he lunched with U.S. cardinals and the Presidium of the USCCB. Later, also in the apostolic nunciature, he received leaders of five charitable organisations: the Knights of Columbus, the Patrons of the Arts, Centesimus Annus Pro Pontefice, the Papal Foundation and the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.
and this regarding the meeting between Pope Benedict and President Bush
At the end of the private meeting between the Holy Father Benedict XVI and U.S. President George W. Bush in the Oval Office of the White House, the Holy See and the Office of the President of the United States of America released a joint declaration, the text of which is given below:
"President Bush, on behalf of all Americans, welcomed the Holy Father, wished him a happy birthday, and thanked him for the spiritual and moral guidance, which he offers to the whole human family. The President wished the Pope every success in his apostolic journey and in his address at the United Nations, and expressed appreciation for the Pope's upcoming visit to 'Ground Zero' in New York.
"During their meeting, the Holy Father and the President discussed a number of topics of common interest to the Holy See and the United States of America, including moral and religious considerations to which both parties are committed: the respect of the dignity of the human person; the defence and promotion of life, matrimony and the family; the education of future generations; human rights and religious freedom; sustainable development and the struggle against poverty and pandemics, especially in Africa. In regard to the latter, the Holy Father welcomed the United States' substantial financial contributions in this area. The two reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents. They further touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights.
"The Holy Father and the President devoted considerable time in their discussions to the Middle East, in particular resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict in line with the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, their mutual support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, and their common concern for the situation in Iraq and particularly the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region. The Holy Father and the President expressed hope for an end to violence and for a prompt and comprehensive solution to the crises which afflict the region.
"The Holy Father and the President also considered the situation in Latin America with reference, among other matters, to immigrants, and the need for a co-ordinated policy regarding immigration, especially their humane treatment and the wellbeing of their families".