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Pope Francis invokes immigrant heritage, quotes Martin Luther King Jr. in speech at White House

Pope Francis meets with President Barack Obama at

Pope Francis meets with President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday morning, Sept. 23, 2015. Credit: News 12 Long Island

WASHINGTON -- From climate change and immigration to race in America, the like-minded views of Pope Francis and President Barack Obama -- on display at a White House ceremony Wednesday -- injected a rare sliver of unity into a city split by partisan bickering.

The pope and Obama talked of the imperative for peace in a world wracked by war, and the need to remember victims of conflicts. Underscoring it all: saving the planet that billions share.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church and his secular U.S. counterpart shared their similar views before 11,000 guests on the South Lawn of the White House.

As if to draw a common thread between the tales of immigrants making their way to the U.S., Francis invoked his own itinerant roots.

He talked of his Italian parents and their journey to Argentina, where he was born in 1936. As the pope spoke, the president stood nearby -- himself the product of a Kenyan father and American mother.

"As the son of an immigrant family," the pope said on the latest stop on his American venture, "I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families."

Obama opened the ceremony by heaping praise on the pontiff as an inspirational and powerful global voice.

"Your message of love and hope has inspired so many people, across our nation and around the world," Obama said. "You remind us of the costs of war -- particularly on the powerless and defenseless."

The tone of their meeting was a glaring antithesis to the last time an American president welcomed a pope.

When Pope Benedict XVI met with President George W. Bush in a 2008, their divergent world views were apparent.

Even as Bush tried to win over the pope with words of peace by St. Augustine, Benedict's favorite theologian, the war in Iraq clouded the effort.

The pope avoided issues like same-sex marriage and abortion but chided Bush for invading Iraq.

No such enmity could be found between this pope and president. On issues that could divide them, the pope took the path of Benedict before him.

Like his predecessor, Francis steered clear of the abortion debate and said little about same-sex marriage.

He did say he would attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on Saturday "to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization."

On other politically divisive issues, Pope Francis was more than willing to be heard.

He spoke of the bedrock American principle of religious freedom, calling it "one of America's most precious possessions."

The pope urged Americans "to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it."

He spoke bluntly of the complicated history of race in the U.S., even finding an opening to reference the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s touchstone "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

"Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies," the pope said. "To use a telling phrase of the Rev. Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."

On climate change, discussed in his recent encyclical, the pope praised Obama for proposing an air pollution initiative and doing his part on an issue the pontiff said can't be ignored.

"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. "Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them."

Later, Pope Francis and Obama appeared on a White House balcony to wave to those below, prompting cheers and applause. They then went to the Oval Office for a private meeting, the White House said.

The two also exchanged gifts. Obama gave Francis a sculpture of an ascending dove. The pope gave Obama a bronze bas-relief of the medallion of the World Meeting of Families.

With Tom Brune

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