Shortly before 10.30am local time yesterday, Benedict XVI arrived at the White House, official residence of President George W Bush who, together with his wife Laura, was on hand to welcome the Pontiff. The Pope, who celebrated his 81st birthday, 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 US 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.
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