The leader of the free world rolled out the red carpet Tuesday for the humble shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
President Obama personally greeted Pope Francis at Andrews Air Force Base, and they were all smiles as they shook hands on the tarmac.
Francis took turns greeting First Lady Michelle Obama, First Daughters Sasha and Malia, Vice President Biden and the veep’s wife, Jill Biden.
It was the first time Francis set foot on U.S. soil and the start of a whirlwind six-day trip up and down the Eastern seaboard that includes a 40-hour stop beginning Thursday in New York City.
Francis flew to the Maryland base from Cuba, where at times he needed help negotiating stairs and was seen wincing when he walked.
But the 78-year-old pontiff, who suffers from sciatica and has a bum knee, betrayed no discomfort as he clambered down the steps of a chartered plane and down the red carpet.
Meanwhile, Obama had a spring in his step and was enjoying a good laugh of his own as he walked up to Francis’ gleaming white Alitalia plane, known as Shepherd One.
The White House did not say what Obama was laughing about.
Emerging from the plane, Francis removed his white skull cap to keep it from being blown away by a stiff wind. He appeared to be energized by the crowd of well-wishers who chanted, “Ho, ho, hey, hey, welcome to the U.S.A.”
Later they hollered, “We love Francis. Yes, we do. We love Francis. How about you?”
A band played Pharrell Williams’ hit “Happy.”
Grinning broadly, the Pope acknowledged the military honor guard and shook hands with the waiting bishops before accepting a bouquet of flowers from four Catholic school kids from Washington.
Then, instead of the gigantic black SUVs favored by most big shots, Francis hopped into the back of a tiny black Fiat hatchback with the Vatican license plate SCV-1, for “status civitatis Vaticanae” — Latin for “state of the Vatican City.”
The 500L’s sticker price begins at less than $20,000 for the most basic version, with the top-of-the-line model listed at $24,695. And Fiat was more than thrilled by the holy endorsement.
“His Holiness knows how to make an entrance … #blessed,” Fiat USA tweeted after Francis rode off.
Max Zanan, co-founder and CEO of auto dealership consulting firm IDDS Group, told the Daily News there is no better pitchman than the pontiff.
“The Pope is seen as the ‘Pope of the people’ by riding in a Fiat, since it is inexpensive and fits his image,” he said. “Bottom line: This is going to have a very positive effect on Fiat sales.”
Francis’ ride was the smallest in the convoy of cars that headed off to the Vatican Embassy in downtown Washington. Once there, he was greeted by a cheering throng of supporters who chanted their greetings in his native Spanish.
Watching Francis every step of the way was the Secret Service, backed by police officers from several law enforcement agencies.
Because this Pope has a propensity for wading into crowds, the feds — along with local law enforcement agencies like the NYPD — have mounted one of the biggest security operations in U.S. history to keep him safe.
Earlier, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama decided to personally greet Francis because the Pope is “a source of inspiration not just for Catholics, but for people of all religions around the world who share the Pope’s values.”
Obama was also following a precedent set by President George W. Bush, who made it to the base in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI made his visit to the U.S.
While in Washington, Francis will address a joint session of Congress — a body that includes conservative Republicans who have taken issue with the Pope’s criticism of unchecked capitalism and climate-change deniers. He will become the first Pope to address a joint session of Congress. He’s expected to talk about climate change, the global dominance of technology and the need for nations to welcome immigrants.
Many Republicans have also panned Francis’ behind-the-scenes efforts to reconcile tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. The Buenos Aires-born Francis has even been branded a Communist by some of his harshest critics.
En route to the U.S., Francis defended himself saying his pronouncements are in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said.
As for those who question his Catholicism, the Pope joked, “If I have to recite the creed, I’m ready.”
Francis wouldn’t reveal what he intends to tell Congress, but said he would not make a specific call for the U.S. to lift the economic blockade of Cuba.
Francis’ first stop on Wednesday morning will be the White House.
Among the 15,000 people attending the event on the South Lawn, there will be several guests who are at odds with the Vatican’s positions on abortion, gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
Francis arrived in the U.S. after capping his historic trip to Cuba on Tuesday by calling for a “revolution of tenderness.”
Francis co-opted the lingo favored by Cuba’s communist rulers during a Mass at the country’s holiest shrine. Cuban President Raul Castro was among those who heard Francis’ words at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre.
With News Wire Services
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