(CBS/AP) An enthralled South Lawn crowd of more than 9,000 sang "Happy Birthday" to Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday, and President Bush said that the first papal White House visit in 29 years was a reminder for Americans to "distinguish between simple right and wrong."
"We need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth," Mr. Bush said in brief remarks welcoming Benedict to the White House. "In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves."
The pontiff turned 81 Wednesday, the first full day of his first trip to the United States as leader of the world's Roman Catholics. His 90-minute stay at the White House was accompanied by the kind of pomp and pageantry rarely seen even on grounds accustomed to routinely welcoming kings and the world's most important leaders.
Lampposts fluttered with flags in the red-white-and-blue of America and yellow-and-white of the Holy See. The vast South Lawn was filled to nearly bursting, requiring a large television screen so those further back could see. Groups of Boy and Girl Scouts were in their Sunday best and members of the Knights of Columbus wore their traditional brightly colored feather headgear. Throngs of those unable to get inside filled the streets all around the White House too, playing music and waving banners in excitement.
Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, stood on the driveway to welcome the pontiff as he stepped from his limousine. The two leaders strolled along a red carpet to a platform set up on the lawn, and sat side-by-side as the Marine Band played the national anthem of the Holy See while a 21-gun salute from the Ellipse sprayed gray smoke into the air. Famed American soprano Kathleen Battle sang "The Lord's Prayer." The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, dressed in colonial garb, marched past the two leaders. The get-together by Mr. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI is the 25th meeting between a Roman Catholic pope and a U.S. president, sessions that span 89 years, five pontiffs and 11 American leaders.
"I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the church in the United States and strengthens the resolve of Catholics to contribute even more responsibly to the life of this nation of which they are proud to be citizens," Benedict said at Bush's side.
Bush showed off America to its important visitor, ticking off what he said are its best virtues: a nation of prayer and compassion, a nation that believes in religious liberty and welcomes the role of faith in the public square, and one that is the most "innovative, creative and dynamic country on Earth" but also among the most religious.
"Most of all, Holy Father, you will find in America people whose hearts are open to your message of hope," Bush said.
But while acting the proud father, Bush also seemed to suggest that America could use a little tough talking-to by the pontiff.
"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, drawing sustained applause from the lawn.
Adela Arguello, a Department of Homeland Security worker from Miami flew in for the events. "We're living in very terrible times and any message like this is important," she said. "He needed to come."
Mr. Bush and the Pope share much common ground, particularly in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But there are plenty of differences.
They disagree over the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Benedict also speaks for environmental protection and social welfare in ways that often run counter to Bush policies. And the pontiff told reporters on his plane that he planned to bring up immigration policy with Mr. Bush during their private Oval Office meeting. Benedict has talked forcefully in the past about the damage caused by punitive immigration laws.
Perino said Mr. Bush would focus on areas of agreement, such as on expanding religious tolerance and containing violent extremism. She said shared concerns for Africa and Lebanon would be on the president's agenda. Perino predicted that Iraq would not "dominate the conversation in any way." If it comes up, it's likely to be focused almost exclusively on the fears of the Christian minority in Muslim-majority Iraq, she said.
Another topic that will get cursory attention, if any, is the clergy sex abuse scandal that continues to devastate the American church. Perino called it not "necessarily on the president's top priorities" for the meeting.
The scandal has cost the church $2 billion in settlements, a moral crisis that became a fiscal crisis. A crisis Benedict is now addressing, reports CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor.
Benedict chose to talk on the topic on his flight to the United States. Answering questions submitted to and selected by Vatican officials in advance, Benedict said he was "deeply ashamed" by the scandal and "will do everything possible to heal this wound."
On the way from Rome on Tuesday, Benedict said he was looking forward to meeting a "great people and a great church" during his first papal journey to the United States. The six-day trip to Washington and New York City coincides not just with his birthday, but the three-year anniversary of his ascendance to the Catholic church's top position. Nurturing the U.S. flock is a sensitive and important mission for Benedict at a time not just of ongoing scandal but also of his campaign to tamp down secularism and re-ignite faith.
No pope has been to the United States since the case of a Boston serial molester triggered a crisis that spread throughout the U.S. and beyond in 2002. Benedict's prayer service with U.S. bishops on Wednesday night at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be watched closely for how he addresses the issue. Because of the prayer service, the pope was not planning to attend a dinner in his honor at the White House.
Mr. Bush has courted the Catholic vote, about a quarter of the U.S. electorate, since his first presidential campaign, with some success. But though Mr. Bush has no more campaigns to run now, he is laying out the red carpet for the pontiff.
The president kicked off the unprecedented series of events by motoring to Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington on Tuesday to meet Benedict's plane, something he's never done for any leader. The pontiff received a screaming, cheering reception befitting a rock star from the hundreds of Catholic students and others who filled bleachers on the tarmac while Mr. Bush, accompanied by his wife, Laura, and daughter Jenna, assumed the unusual role of second fiddle.