WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis called for action to combat climate change Wednesday while at the White House, then urged American bishops to confront the issues of the world, saying "It's wrong . . . to look the other way or to remain silent."

Francis gently admonished the spiritual leaders, saying they must embrace the "yoke" of the challenges before them -- from immigration and the plight of refugees to hunger and violence -- as a gift from Christ.

"The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges," Francis told a gathering of about 300 bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the seat of the Catholic Church in Washington.

See alsoComplete coverageInteractiveYour messages to the popeSee alsoPope's visit: Follow along at News 12

"The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man's predatory relationship with nature -- at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters," the Argentine pontiff said.

The responses to those issues, he said at the noontime prayer service, are "essential aspects of the church's mission."

The American Catholic Church, he noted, has grappled with weighty and controversial issues, and doctrinal debates. But that, he said, shouldn't distract the shepherds from their vital mission.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The world is already so torn and divided, brokenness is now everywhere," Francis said. "Consequently, the church, 'the seamless garment of the Lord,' cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or fought over. Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity . . . "

Francis also sought healing for the victims of the priest sexual abuse scandal.

"I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims -- in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed -- and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated," he said.

The bishops responded by erupting in applause.

Goodwill for immigrants

Get the Newsday Now newsletter!

The best of Newsday every day in your inbox.

Concluding his remarks, the pope urged the bishops to support priests, finding ways to encourage their spiritual growth, and to open their own hearts to new immigrants, particularly those from Latin America.

In a pomp-filled White House ceremony, Francis opened his visit to America Wednesday morning by calling for global action on climate change.

The pope praised President Barack Obama for proposing an initiative to reduce air pollution.

"Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation," Francis said in halting English.

The warming planet, he said, "demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition" of what awaits today's children.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In his remarks, Obama hailed the pontiff as a moral force who is "shaking us out of our complacency" with reminders to care for the poor and the planet.

Francis, citing his immigrant roots, said American Catholics "are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination."

The pope said protection of religious liberties -- "one of America's most precious possessions" -- must be preserved.

At the start of the ceremony, Obama and Francis stood side by side on a red-carpeted platform bedecked with red, white and blue bunting, as the national anthems of the Vatican and then the United States played.

Addressing 11,000 ticketed guests on the South Lawn under clear-blue skies, the pope and the president touched on many shared concerns in addition to climate change, including immigration issues, the plight of Syrian refugees and renewed U.S.-Cuban relations.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, declined to provide details of a 43-minute private meeting between Francis and Obama.

But Lombardi said diplomatic delegations headed by Vice President Joseph Biden and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, discussed the Cuban embargo and the Holy See's long-standing opposition to it.

"There was a certain readiness to understand from the USA side how it is possible to go on to solve the different problems" about lifting the blockade, Lombardi said.

Blessings for babies

Adoring crowds, dotted with parents holding out babies for blessings, later filled a parade route along Constitution Avenue as Francis made a loop around the streets near the White House in his popemobile -- an open-sided white Jeep.

Along the parade route, bodyguards ferried several babies from behind police barricades to the Jeep for pontifical kisses. At one point, a young girl in pigtails and tennis shoes tried to approach the popemobile. Security guards tried to shoo her back, but Francis motioned her over and bestowed a kiss and blessing.

In the afternoon, outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the nation's largest Roman Catholic church, the pontiff made a reality the decades-stalled sainthood of Junípero Serra, who founded nine of the 21 missions strung along the Pacific coast and baptized or confirmed thousands of Native Indians.

It was the first Mass of his first-ever U.S. visit -- a three-city, six-day tour, that features an address to a joint meeting of Congress Thursday morning and several stops in New York City and Philadelphia.

"We are heirs to the bold missionary spirit of so many men and women who preferred not to be shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security . . . within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving," Francis said.

He praised Serra: "He was the embodiment of 'a church which goes forth,' a church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God."

The Mass drew an outdoor crowd estimated at 25,000 people, many of whom arrived hours early.

Deborah Dudleyno age, of Pomfret, Maryland, said the chance to see the canonization of the first saint on U.S. soil is "in itself a wonderful thing."

But there's more to it than that, even beyond words, she said.

"I am here for the experience of how powerful the presence of the Holy Spirit will be felt," Dudley said. "He's actually what our faith needed, because he's very caring and compassionate and shows it. He doesn't talk about faith; he lives it."

Many Hispanics made a point to go to the Mass, where they would not only meet the first Latin American pope but would also hear him speak in Spanish.

"It would be a sin not to come see him when we're just a few Metro stations away," said Patricia Mejía, 42, who is Salvadoran and works as an analyst for a government labor office. She worships at a parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The pope, she said in Spanish, brings "a message from God that we can be better and that the most marginal and rejected people in society are to be accepted and cared for by all of us."