WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI enthralled crowds and offered a thoughtful reflection on religion in America during a White House welcoming ceremony April 16.

It was an extraordinary rolling out of the red carpet for a visiting dignitary. President Bush, accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush, brought out the U.S. Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, reserved for very rare occasions.

Famed opera soprano Kathleen Battle sang The Lord’s Prayer and led the estimated 13,500 guests, which U.S. News and World Report called the largest crowd ever for a ceremony on the South Lawn, in a round of “Happy Birthday” on Benedict’s 81st birthday. A military band played the anthem of the Holy See and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and a contingent gave the Pope a 21-gun salute.

Bush and Benedict gave addresses that stressed shared commitments — a vision of freedom rooted in morality and responsibility.

After a public ceremony, the leader of the free world and the universal pastor of the Church held a private meeting that lasted about 45 minutes. During that meeting, the two prayed together for the institution of the family, said Father Federico Lombardi, the Holy Father’s press secretary.

President Bush noted in his address that it was the first trip that Pope Benedict has made to the United States since he “ascended to the Chair of St. Peter.” It also marked the second time a Pope has visited the White House, following John Paul II’s 1979 visit during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

“I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel, and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society,” Benedict said during his address.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, attended, as did administration officials, members of congress, cardinals and bishops. The roped-off crowd strained in quiet anticipation until the Holy Father’s arrival, which drew clapping and wild cheers as he stood smiling next to the president and first lady.

Pope Benedict spoke of America as a nation of freedom rooted in faith and responsibility. He quoted John Paul II, reminding America that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation” and alluded to President George Washington’s farewell address, saying that “religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.”

“Democracy can only flourish, as your Founding Fathers realized,” he said, “when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.”

One congressman who attended the ceremony found the Pope’s message a “very positive” one of “renewal and hope.”

“It drew important parallels between the Catholic Church and the founding of the United States,” said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich. “Both depend on faith and reason inspired by truth.”

McCotter said that he was deeply touched by the speech as a Catholic and as an American.

“He had a deep knowledge of America, its founding principles, its history,” he said, and “an appreciation and love for the people of the United States of America.”

The president’s speech also examined the religious roots in America and mentioned the country’s compassion, respect for human life and willingness to accept the responsibilities of freedom.

“Here in America, you’ll find a nation that is fully modern, yet guided by ancient and eternal truths,” he said. Bush added that both America and the world were hungry for the Pope’s message of hope: “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 crowd loved it. “The people anticipating his arrival made it all so exciting,” said Dorothy Fleming, who came from Minnesota for the event. “There were so many people there who recognized his simplicity, his humility.”

The crowd burst forth cheering and singing “Happy Birthday” as the Pope ascended the platform with President Bush.

“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,” said the president.