Pope Francis Speaks About Child Abuse, Immigration and Abortion in His First Prayer Service in the U.S.

Pope Francis landed in America on Tuesday for his first-ever trip to the United States as pontiff

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

After arriving for his first visit to the U.S. on Tuesday, Pope Francis hosted his first prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., in which he addressed several current affairs.

He first touched on sexual abuse scandals within the church.

“I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice,” he says. “Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful.”

“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.”

Pope Francis went on to combat anti-immigration stances during his speech.

“From the beginning you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper, and kept alive the flame of their faith. Even today, no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities. Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses. Not only as the Bishop of Rome, but also as a pastor from the South, I feel the need to thank and encourage you.”

“Perhaps it will not be easy for you to look into their soul; perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources meant to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them. Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”

The pontiff also touched upon abortion.

“The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the 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. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.”

The prayer service took place after a welcome ceremony at the White House where he addressed issues in America.

Nearly an hour after his scheduled arrival time at the church, Pope Francis appeared preceded by a motorcade of police cars, motorbikes and about a dozen black SUVs.

Large TV screens inside the church broadcasted his arrival in his Fiat, which erupted a roar of laughter in the church as the difference between the large security cars and his small city car was accentuated.

The pontiff walked in at 11:50 a.m., as the crowds screamed “Te queremos Francisco” (“We love you, Francis” in Spanish). As he walked down the central aisle, the people gathered broke out into a general applause.

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Pope Francis is the first to visit the church since John Paul II in 1979. The 175-year-old cathedral can hold 1,000 people and is where the funeral for President John F. Kennedy was held in 1963.

Approximately 300 bishops were in attendance, where Pope Francis addressed them in Italian.

The mass attracted a sprawling crowd including Emmy-nominated actress and producer Roma Downey.

“I am a pope groupie,” Downey, who played an angel on Touched by an Angel, tells PEOPLE. “I could not not be here. I have just come over from the White House.”

Downey, who also planned to attend the mass that followed, says she was invited by Reverend Monsignor Ronny Jenkins and Cardinal Donald Wuerl after preparing for The Bible series.

“He is making a huge splash. When he arrived at the White House there was a roar from the crowd, and then there he arrived in his little Fiat,” the life-long Roman Catholic says. “The Pope is bringing a message of healing, hope and inclusion. I see it in my own parish that because of him people are returning to church. His message was warm and encouraging and a great reminder to treat everyone with the love of Jesus.”

Following the prayer service, a mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will take place.

Reporting by PRAXILLA TRABATTONI

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