Pope Francis’s chartered Alitalia jet landed at Joint Base Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, with Vatican and American flags flying. The pope alighted from the plane to cheers under cloudy skies and a steady breeze that lifted the black robes of the awaiting bishops and kept the flags rippling.
Waiting for Francis: President Obama, who rarely greets arriving foreign dignitaries on the runway, where a red carpet had been rolled out Tuesday, just minutes before the plane touched down slightly ahead of schedule.
The president, the first lady, their two daughters and the president’s mother-in-law stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs, where they shook hands with Francis. Their presence spoke to the widespread anticipation of the pope’s six-day, three-city visit to the United States.
“Ho ho, hey hey, welcome to the U-S-A,” the crowd chanted as the pontiff held his small, white cap — called a zucchetto — in his hand, perhaps to prevent it from blowing off in the wind.
The welcoming party also included U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett, Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Beyond them, an exited crowd of hundreds — mostly young people — chanted “ole, ole!” and snapped pictures as the pope walked the carpet following a flight from Cuba.
Pope Francis left in a black Fiat, waving to the crowd through open windows – with a security team walking nearby – as he drove off.
The president lingered, as the young crowd roared “Thank you Obama! Thank you Obama!”
Pope Francis’s Fiat was long gone as the youth reached over the edge of the bleachers to touch the president, filled with residual excitement from watching the pope’s first moments in the United States.
The runway transformed Tuesday afternoon into a spiritual shindig as hundreds of children, teens and young adults filled risers and played music, chanted and sang to warm up for the Holy Father’s arrival. Some 1,000 people were expected, but the security lines were long and slow to get in. Security was incredibly tight with all manner of armed military personnel around the small scene.
The Vatican selected four children in first, third, fifth and seventh grades from different Catholic schools in the Washington area to greet the pope, and as Color Guard members unfurled a red carpet on the concrete and security dogs sniffed around, the waiting crowd sang along to the 37-member wind ensemble from DeMatha High School in Hyattsville.
The scene felt like a pep rally as they sang “Louie, Louie” and “Sweet Caroline” and chanted “We love Francis, yes we do” back and forth between the risers.
Pope Francis left by motorcade for the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States on Massachusetts Avenue NW, where he will stay during his visit to Washington.
Obama and Francis were to drive into Washington separately, according to the White House. Normally, the president would ride back by helicopter — but he couldn’t on Tuesday, because the South Lawn — the Marine One landing pad — is already set up for the papal visit that’s scheduled for Wednesday.
The pope arrived at the Apostolic Nunciature just before 5 p.m., as hundreds cheered his motorcade, many ignoring police instructions to clear the street as they clamored to get closer to the building where the pope will sleep and raising their phones to snap videos.
This is the first time the 78-year-old Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, has ever stepped foot on U.S. soil. He will find everything from a grand presidential greeting to selfie requests — and a public that seems to have more admiration for him than it does for the rest of his church.
The pope’s U.S. visit is historic: On Thursday, Francis will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.
In an early signal of the political implications of the papal visit, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) came to the Senate floor on Tuesday afternoon, just as Francis set foot on American soil.
Sanders, a presidential candidate and one of the most liberal members of Congress, praised Francis for “speaking out with courage and brilliance about some of the most important issues facing our world.”
On the plane ride from Cuba to Washington, the pope spoke to reporters who asked him questions about claims that he is a communist. Francis insisted he is not liberal, defending his positions as consistent with Catholic Church doctrine.
“Maybe I have given an impression of being a little bit to the left,” the pope said, CNS reports. “But if they want me to recite the Creed, I can!”
He also reportedly gave a brief preview of what he will tell Congress, saying that he will speak in general terms about “bilateral relations and multinational relations as a sign of progress and coexistence.”
The papal visit also make a mess of Washington’s commute: With multiple days of transit disruptions, road closures and traffic backups, AAA Mid-Atlantic says it could be “apope-calyptic.”
More than an hour before Pope Francis’s arrival at the Apostolic Nunciature where he will sleep, about three dozen greeters waited singing hymns in Spanish and dancing in a circle led by four guitar players and tambourine shaker.
Among them were Michelle and Luis Padilla of Burtonsville, near Silver Spring. The Catholic municipal workers immediately requested five days off of work when they learned the pope planned to visit the U.S. Luis Padilla, 48, says seeing a pope in the flesh is among his bucket list items.
“It’s like how people want to shake hands with a rocker at a concert. Just like that,” he said.
Part of the appeal for the self described Nuyoricans-boasting Puerto Rican and New York heritage-is seeing the first pope from a Latin American country, but Michelle Padilla says the bigger appeal is Francis’s accessibility and down to earth nature.
Through their Silver Spring parish, the Padillas nabbed tickets for the Wednesday canonization Mass of Junipero Serra. They plan to hit the road Wednesday at 3:30 a.m. and follow Francis to Philadelphia. The specter of clogged roads and crowds don’t daunt them.
“What does the traffic really mean? Nothing when you compare it to someone dying for you. The traffic is nothing,” said Michelle Padilla, 45.
Francis’s U.S. visit catapults him into the center of the political scrum surrounding some of his more recent remarks.
His recent changes to the church’s annulment process will be on the minds of many Catholics. For the members of Congress who will listen to the pope’s address at the U.S. Capitol, his recent encyclical on the environment or his many comments on poverty may be the focus. At least one Republican lawmaker — Rep. Paul A. Gosar, a Catholic representing Arizona — has vowed to boycott the Thursday speech over the pope’s stance on climate change.
The busy papal schedule really kicks into gear Wednesday: Obama will officially welcome him to the White House at 9:15 a.m. Once that’s over, there will be a popemobile parade around the Ellipse near the Mall. Then, Pope Francis will head to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where he will pray with and address 400 U.S. bishops.
The canonization Mass of Junípero Serra begins at 4:30, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
During his visit, which will also take him to New York and Philadelphia, the pope will address the United Nations; visit a homeless shelter, a prison and an East Harlem school; hit Central Park and Madison Square Garden; and lead the concluding Mass at the World Meeting of Families, an international conference held every three years. Sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family, the World Meeting of Families is the official reason for the pope’s U.S. visit.
As for what to expect from Pope Francis, Vatican experts and the media have been preparing themselves to observe and interpret this pope’s tendency to deviate from his official script. Francis gave some clues of the themes he may address in the United States during his time in Cuba, said Chad Pecknold, a theologian at Catholic University, the national university of the Catholic Church.
Speaking at a large downtown DC news conference on Tuesday evening, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a brief talk that the pope “has a moral authority to bring answers and questions to the most important assemblies of the world today.”
“This is his first visit to the U.S. this gives him an attitude of humility, of respect,” Lombardi added. “This is an occasion of new encounter. He has an attitude of one to receive, not just to give.”
It’s already clear, for instance, that Pope Francis will speak about immigration and religious liberty during a major address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday.
But ultimately, Pope Francis’s unpredictable approach to the papacy means that “there’s just no template” for his first U.S. visit, Pecknold said.
“The only template for Francis is Francis,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan would be a member of the welcoming party. The post has been updated.
Fenit Nirappil, Mike DeBonis, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Steven Mufson contributed to this post, which has been updated multiple times.