Pope Francis on Tuesday afternoon touched down at Joint Base Andrews to begin a historic six-day, three-city visit that will have political, diplomatic and spiritual ramifications. Breaking from the usual protocol for a state visit, President Obama and Vice President Biden chose to greet the papal plane before Francis departed in a hatchback Fiat to begin his tightly scheduled, carefully choreographed and highly anticipated visit.
Francis has an ambitious schedule: The pontiff will visit the White House, meet with U.S. Catholic bishops and celebrate a new saint with a canonization Mass for the Spanish missionary priest Junipero Serra on Wednesday. On Thursday, he'll be the first pope to address a joint meeting of the US Congress, and on Friday he'll address the nations of the world at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
The World Meeting of Families, the primary reason for his visit, is likely to draw more than a million people to Philadelphia on Saturday. That, the Vatican says, was the primary reason for his visit, with everything else scheduled around that.
Two-and-a-half years into a papacy made possible by the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has become wildly popular in the United States as his message of mercy has softened some of the church's more traditional doctrines on sin and salvation. Eighty-six percent of Catholics and 65% of non-Catholics view him favorably, according to a Washington Post-CNN poll last week.
But Francis' views on abortion, immigration and climate change have also thrust him into political debates in the United States.
Speaking to reporters on the papal plane Tuesday, the pope acknowledged that his emphasis on economic issues has led to a perception that he's a little bit more left-leaning. But rejected that characterization of his ideology.
I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church, he said. And if anyone doubts whether he's still Catholic, he joked that he's ready to recite the creed on request.
Francis first-ever visit to the US comes at pivotal moments for United States, the church, and the world. Europe is in the grips of a refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, while the United States is embroiled in its own immigration debate. Congress will vote this week on a number of bills restricting abortion and defunding its largest provider, Planned Parenthood. Christians and other religious minorities are being persecuted in the Middle East, and global climate talks are set to resume in Paris in two months.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont said he expects the pope to address those issues, but couch them in positive terms: Instead of lobbying Congress or the President directly on abortion, immigration or the environment, he will likely use praise and encouragement to ask Americans to be more generous with its resources and respectful of life.
We in the West tend to see everything through a political prism, and he tends to annoy both the left and the right at different times, Coyne said. That's missing the point. They're trying to politicize Francis. He's Pope Francis; he's not Senator Francis.
Francis used a similar approach in Cuba Tuesday, co-opting the revolutionary language of the Castro regime in a more spiritual context. We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did, Francis said at a morning Mass at Our Lady of Charity shrine in Santiago de Cuba.
The Cuban visit was no accident of scheduling. As the first Latin American pope, Francis made a conscious decision to enter the United States through the south, via Cuba, a Spanish-speaking island nation for whom Francis worked behind-the-scenes to gain formal recognition from the United States after a 45-year break in relations.
After departing Cuba, the pope's plane circled over North Carolina several times — apparently for scheduling reasons — but was still 10 minutes early. He greeted Obama with a handshake, and the president responded with a short but perceptible bow.
Also greeting the pope was a delegation that included the extended Obama and Biden families, an Air Force major general, the State Department's chief of protocol, an ambassador, 10 bishops and five monsignors. Hundreds of faithful chanted We love Francis, yes we do in English and Holy Father, bless your children in Spanish as the pope arrived.
From the airport, Francis got into a black Fiat 500L hatchback displaying the customary Popemobile license plate of SCV-1. It was very easy to recognize where the pope is, because he's the smallest car in the motorcade, spokesman Lombardi said.
His destination: the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Northwest Washington, a relatively modest embassy across the street from the Vice President's residence at the Naval Observatory, where a hundred schoolchildren greeted him with Spanish chants.