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Pope Francis Highlights Climate Change At White House

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Pope Francis threw his spiritual weight behind several political issues today, saying action on climate change cannot wait and calling on American Catholics to welcome immigrants. The pope himself got a pretty warm welcome on his first full day in the U.S. Thousands of people turned out to see him as he paraded through downtown Washington D.C. in his popemobile.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Put your phones down.

MCEVERS: You can hear someone there saying, put your phones down as people lifted their arms trying to get a picture of Pope Francis. We'll hear more about what people said about the pope later. But first, NPR's Scott Horsley begins our coverage with the pope's visit this morning to the White House.

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SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Pope Francis arrived at the White House on a picture-perfect autumn day. Yellow Vatican flags fluttered under the clear, blue sky as some 11,000 people packed the south lawn to see the pontiff. The White House skipped the traditional 21-gun salute in deference to the Vatican's wishes. President Obama says Pope Francis's low key style is what many Americans find so appealing in this pope.

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BARACK OBAMA: In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words, in the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus's teachings.

HORSLEY: Obama thanked Pope Francis for backing international action on climate change. And the pope, in turn, thanked Obama for his own efforts to limit heat-trapping gases.

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POPE FRANCIS: Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.

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HORSLEY: Climate change is one of several issues where Pope Francis is closely aligned with the president. They also find common ground when it comes to addressing income inequality and immigration.

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POPE FRANCIS: As the son of an immigrant family, I'm happy to be a guest in this country which was largely built by such families.

HORSLEY: Frances underscored that message later in the day in a speech to America's Catholic bishops, calling himself a pastor from the South. This first Latin-American pope urged Catholics to keep extending a welcoming hand to immigrants. Perhaps you'll be challenged by their diversity, he said, but Latin-American newcomers will continue to enrich America and its church.

That message is likely to cause heartburn for some conservatives in Congress who'll hear from the pope tomorrow. But Francis's words can also give liberal's pause. He stressed the importance today of protecting religious liberty, which is a banner some have used to oppose the requirement for birth control insurance in the president's health care law. The pope also vowed to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and family at what he called a critical moment. That could be interpreted as a knock on same-sex unions.

JOHN GREEN: One of the hallmarks of Pope Francis's papacy has been that he surprises people.

HORSLEY: John Green is a political scientist at the University of Akron and co-author of "Religion And The Culture Wars." He says there's no telling which issues Francis will choose to highlight when he speaks to a joint meeting of Congress.

GREEN: In the jargon of American politics, he can be a bit unfiltered when he expresses his opinions and doesn't seem to mind that that sometimes generates some controversy.

HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged today the pope's message can be uncomfortable for people across the political spectrum, but he called that discomfort a blessing, adding it points to something better. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.