WASHINGTON - Pope Francis landed on U.S. soil for the first time on Tuesday, launching a six-day visit that will highlight his love for the poor and his willingness to tackle the nation's most significant political, social and economic controversies.
In an unprecedented welcome for a foreign dignitary, President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters along with Vice President Joe Biden and his family traveled to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington to greet the pontiff, who arrived from Cuba.
The flags of the United States and the Vatican flapped from the cockpit windows of the pope's chartered Italian jet as it rolled to a stop near a line of priests in black and red robes and a group of children from local Catholic schools. The Argentine-born pope appeared at the top of the stairs of the plane in a white cassock, smiled and removed his skullcap so it would not be blown away by the wind. Obama greeted him at the foot of the steps with a handshake and a warm smile.
The crowd chanted "Ho Ho, Hey, Hey Hey, Welcome to the U.S.A." as Francis became the fourth head of the Catholic Church to visit the United States, nearly 50 years after Paul VI made the first visit by a pontiff to the country in October 1965.
On the plane en route to the United States, Francis told reporters, including CNN's Rosa Flores, that he was happy to make his first U.S. visit. He dismissed suggestions that he was a socialist or a "lefty," saying that despite his warnings of the inequities in the global economic system, his beliefs were consistent with the established social doctrine of the Church.
After a brief private meeting with Obama in a VIP suite, the pope climbed into a black Fiat hatchback car with the number plate SCV 1, which was much smaller than the limousine foreign visitors normally take in Washington -- in keeping with his rejection of much of the pageantry that accompanies the papacy and his desire to live a humble life. After a busy few days in Cuba, Francis has no scheduled events on Tuesday night and will remain at the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio or Vatican ambassador to the United States.
Obama will roll out an official welcoming ceremony for Francis on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday. The pope will then parade through downtown Washington in his Popemobile, with thousands of people expected to line the sidewalks. He'll hold a canonization later in the day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Thursday could be the most politically significant day of his trip, with the first-ever joint address to Congress by a pontiff. He'll then head to New York, where he will host a religious service at the ground zero site of the September 11 attacks in 2001 and address the United Nations. His trip ends Sunday in Philadelphia.
The highly anticipated visit is triggering one of the largest security mobilizations in U.S. history, jointly run by the U.S. Secret Service and the F.B.I. and involving federal, state and city law enforcement. Officials have said, however, that they have not detected any specific terrorist threat to the pope while he is in the United States.