Pope Benedict arrives at the White House April 16, greeted by President George and First Lady Laura Bush. In a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn, the president said,  "We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine: Pax Tecum. Peace be with you." The pope said, "I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, (and) a preacher of the Gospel."
CS PHOTO BY RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO
Pope Benedict arrives at the White House April 16, greeted by President George and First Lady Laura Bush. In a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn, the president said, "We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine: Pax Tecum. Peace be with you." The pope said, "I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, (and) a preacher of the Gospel." CS PHOTO BY RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO
Waving flags, shouting "Viva il Papa" ("Long Live the Pope"), and offering two renditions of "Happy Birthday," a crowd of about 13,000 people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House April 16 to watch President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush officially welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the United States.

"We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine: Pax Tecum. Peace be with you," the president told the pontiff.

"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," the Holy Father said in return. "America's Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country."

Dignitaries at the event included Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, all the American cardinals and most of the nation's bishops, members of the Senate and House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, wounded military personnel, representatives of religious orders and clergy from other faiths, a Knights of Columbus honor guard, students from Catholic schools and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

President Bush told the pope that he would find "in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope."

"America and the world need this message. In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that 'God is love,'" President Bush said.

He told the Holy Father that America is a nation that believes in God.

"Here in America you'll find a nation of compassion... Here in America you'll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square... Here in America, you'll find a nation that is fully modern, yet guided by ancient and eternal truths," President Bush told the Holy Father.

The president also said the country needs to be reminded of the Church's pro-life teaching.

"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred, and that each of us is willed, each of us is loved and each of us is necessary," the president said. "In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this 'dictatorship of relativism,' and embrace a culture of justice and truth."

The pope, in his remarks, praised the long heritage of religious freedom in America. He said that during the course of its history, this country has "forged the soul of the nation (where) religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement."

He also said that he hoped his visit to America "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, of which they are proud to be citizens."

He promised not only to meet with Catholics here but also with "representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country."

"Historically, 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," Pope Benedict said. "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."

The Holy Father also reminded Americans that "freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility."

"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate," Pope Benedict said. "It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate."

While the April 16 ceremony was the official visit to the United States, President and Mrs. Bush broke with tradition by greeting the Holy Father when he landed aboard "Shepherd One" at Andrews Air Force Base.

The official White House welcome also coincided with the pope's 81st birthday.

"You've chosen to visit America on your birthday," the president said. "Well, birthdays are traditionally spent with close friends, so our entire nation is moved and honored that you've decided to share this special day with us. We wish you much health and happiness - today and for many years to come."

That remark drew long and sustained enthusiastic applause and cheers from the crowd.

The crowds gathered on the South Lawn were, according to one White House security official, one of the largest crowds ever gathered there to greet a foreign head of state.

About two hours before the pope arrived at the White House, groups of Catholics - including seminarians and members of the Neocatecumenal Way - carried banners, and sang songs to welcome the Holy Father. Banging drums and tambourines and strumming guitars, the joyful Catholics marched around the White House and Lafayette Square on the opposite side of the street.

Spotting a group of journalists preparing to enter the White House, they yelled, "Write down that we love Pope Benedict!"

Among the crowds on the lawn was a young girl carrying a sign that read "Welcome to the Pope of Hope." A little boy held a sign written in German that translated as, "My name is Joseph, too."

Evelyn Brookwalter, a senior at St. Mary-Ryken High School in Leonardtown said it was "really cool" to be among the thousands welcoming Pope Benedict on his first apostolic visit to the United States.

"I could only see the top of his head and when he lifted his hands," Brookwalter said, "but it is very exciting just to be in his presence."

For Father Bill Foley, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Upper Marlboro, the welcoming ceremony was "artfully done and just a fine job."

"I still find it kind of hard to believe I was here," he said.

The relatively short official greeting included a 21-gun salute, a rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" by American soprano Kathleen Battle, and impromptu shouts of "Viva il Papa" ("Long Live the Pope") and even an off-the-cuff singing of "Happy Birthday."

Later, Battle led a more serious rendition of "Happy Birthday" just before President and Mrs. Bush escorted the Holy Father into the White House.

Just before leaving the South Lawn, Pope Benedict shouted "God bless America," which caused great cheers from the excited thousands.

After the South Lawn ceremony, President and Mrs. Bush escorted the pontiff to the Blue Room, where relatives of the president were waiting and where birthday cake was served. The Bushes also gave the pontiff a birthday gift: a CD of American singers performing religious songs. The leaders then met privately for about 45 minutes in the Oval Office.

After the meeting, the White House Press office issued a statement saying the president and the pope "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 defense 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."

The White House said both also "reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents."

The press statement also said Pope Benedict and President devoted "considerable time" to discussing 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."

Pope Benedict exited the White House in his Popemobile, accompanied by a long motorcade. Thousands gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the Holy Father as he made his was to the Apostolic Nunciature, where he was scheduled to have a birthday lunch with America's cardinals.