The popular 78-year-old Argentina-born Pope Francis, who has softened the church’s tone, focused on climate change and the poor, and seized a spot on the global stage, launched his maiden visit to the United States with a characteristic gesture of humility on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 and sent a conciliatory message to the world’s wealthiest nation about his frequent criticism of capitalism. He plans to visit the White House and address Congress and the United Nations.
Obama, his family and Vice President Joe Biden greeted the pope in an honor given only to a select world leaders. The pope took off his white skullcap as he walked down the steps from the jet to the windy tarmac to greet first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, Jill Biden and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, among others. After a red carpet welcome by President Barack Obama at an air base near the capital, the 78-year-old Argentine headed off to Washington not in a limousine as is customary but in a modest Fiat. According to reports, schoolchildren cheered the pontiff as his Alitalia plane landed, chanting “We love Francis, yes we do. We love Francis, how about you?” In a news conference held in the District after the pope’s arrival, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, called the visit a “new encounter.” Francis “has an attitude of one to receive, not just to give,” he said.
On Wednesday, the pope is scheduled to visit the White House and Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. On Wednesday afternoon, the pope is scheduled to celebrate a Mass with 25,000 people to canonize Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan priest who founded historic missions in California. The Mass is scheduled to take place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
He will also greet tens of thousands of people during a pope-mobile parade around the Ellipse, south of the White House. Large crowds from across the region are expected to gather early, and streets will be thronged and periodically cordoned off across the city as the pope crisscrosses the District on Wednesday. On Thursday, Francis will make the first address by a pope to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, in the Capitol. Afterward, he is scheduled to appear on the balcony of the West Front of the Capitol to greet a crowd of about 50,000 that is expected to gather.
The pope has drawn attention with recent statements about the dangers of global warming. He softened the tone of the church on its opposition to homosexuality and recently moved to ease the granting of marriage annulments. He is scheduled to leave for New York on Thursday, then travel Saturday to Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall, where he will speak at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address, and celebrate Mass on Sunday at the World Meeting of Families. He will return to Rome on Sunday evening.