Pope Francis is to be received with full state honours Wednesday at the White House on the second day of his first-ever visit to the United States, before the 78-year-old pontiff addresses Thursday’s joint session of Congress.
After the welcoming ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn, Francis and President Barack Obama are to hold a private meeting in the Oval Office.
Just outside the White House grounds, tens of thousands of Catholics and other spectators are expected to throng Washington’s government district, where Francis is to parade Wednesday along the park-like Ellipse. The forecast is for clear skies and temperatures near 70 degrees Celsius.
“There’s an opportunity for the citizens of this country to welcome him and show how warmly his message has been received in this country, by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
“He has served a role model for so many, based on the way that he has lived out the values in his life. He doesn’t just talk about them, but he lives them.”
After a four-day visit to Cuba, Francis flew Tuesday to Joint Base Andrews, a military airport outside the US capital, to start a six-day tour of Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
US and Vatican flags waved from the cockpit windows as his Alitalia taxied on the runway. US military personnel rolled out a red carpet, while a flag-bearing colour guard of all four US military branches marched into position.
A crowd on nearby grandstands cheered wildly as the door of the jet opened. Predominantly young adults and students from local Catholic schools, they delivered spirited chants, including one borrowed from US scholastic sports: “We love Francis, yes we do, we love Francis, how ’bout you?”
One of several banners in the crowd proclaimed: “Share the joy: Walk with Francis.”
Finally, a smiling, waving Francis stepped through the jet’s door in his white robes and pulled off his cap in windy conditions. On Saturday in Havana, his white skull cap blew off as he walked down the stairs from his airplane.
In a light drizzle on a gray afternoon, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their families shook hands with Francis on the tarmac, along with a delegation of black-robed clergy from the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
Four children in Catholic school uniforms met him with flowers.
Francis climbed into the back seat of a black Fiat 500L with an Italian license plate – an unusually humble car for a Washington motorcade – on a 30-minute, high-security drive to the Vatican embassy, the nunciature, to spend the night.
The slogan for his trip is “Love is our mission.”
Later Wednesday, Francis is scheduled to attend a prayer service with 300 US bishops before leading a canonization mass for Franciscan friar Junipero Serra (1713-84), who founded nine missions in California.
The White House has underlined Obama’s and Francis’ agreement on social issues – such as combatting climate change and inequality – but Obama’s policies on abortion and same-sex marriage clash with Catholic doctrine.
Francis is the Vatican head of state, but the White House has stressed that their meeting is not a political event but rather a hance to emphasize shared values.
Even on issues on which the two leaders disagree, Obama holds “the pope and his views in high regard,” Earnest said.
Obama and Francis first met last year in Rome.
The Cuba-US trip is the pope’s third this year, after he visited the Philippines in January and South America in July.