RELIGION
09/22/2015 04:09 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2015

Pope Francis Lands Near Washington For First Trip To The United States

He's finally here!

Pope Francis arrived Tuesday at Joint Base Andrews, marking the beginning of his first trip to the United States. 

The pontiff landed at about 3:50 p.m. EDT and was greeted by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and top cardinals and bishops from the U.S. Catholic church, including the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.

More than a hundred lay church members and Catholic students, including the band from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, welcomed the pope with songs, screams and chants of "Olé, Olé, Olé!" Those in the crowd waved Argentine flags -- a nod to the pope's native country -- while four children from Washington-area Catholic schools greeted him, and one lucky kid got to present the church leader with flowers.

After a short walk and discussion with Obama beyond the view of the crowd, Francis returned to the airfield and sat in the back seat of a dark gray Fiat 500L. He smiled and waved before the car drove him away.

The pope's highly anticipated arrival came after a whirlwind three-city visit to Cuba, where he met with Cuban leaders Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro, as well as church bishops and youth. During his flight to the U.S., the pope held a short press conference, telling journalists that it would be a "mistake" to call him a leftist or liberal despite criticizing global capitalism and asking "Who am I to judge a gay person?" 

“It is I who follows the church … my doctrine on all this … on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church," he said, according to Time.

During the presser, the pope also previewed his planned Thursday morning address to Congress. It will cover "bilateral relations and multinational relations as a sign of progress and coexistence,” he said. The pope, who helped orchestrate the historic detente between the U.S. and Cuba, said he would not discuss the decades-long U.S. embargo of the island.

Onlookers who were there to welcome the pope described it as a unique chance to see one of the few living global religious figures up close.

Kevin Carruthers, a DeMatha Catholic High School student and drummer who played for the pope as he arrived, called it the "biggest performance of my life." 

Emma Rocillo, a Filipino-American from St. Michael's Church in Lorton, Virginia, said she felt blessed to be selected to sit on the risers about 200 feet from the pope's airplane. "It's the most awaited thing, we waited so long," she said. "I carried everybody's prayers with me, I carried a picture of my kids ... I have two. It was a blessing to carry them with me and get blessed."

Vonetta Norman, a retired medic who used to work at Joint Base Andrews and came with her husband, Chris Norman, said watching the pope's arrival was "a once-in-a-lifetime experience." As she held her children -- Christiane, 8, Christian, 6, and Christophe, 4 -- her husband described his love for the pope's "open spirit" that "makes a man want to be better."

Francis has a rigorous itinerary in store during his six-day visit. On Wednesday morning, he'll attend a large welcoming ceremony on the White House's South Lawn with an expected 15,000 guests. He'll then join 300 bishops for prayer at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle before going to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to canonize the church's newest saint, Junípero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan missionary.

Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Huffington Post that he was especially looking forward to the pontiff's speech to Congress. "Take a moment and appreciate what the pope has to say," said Steele, who is Catholic. He added that would be a "crazy idea" for a lawmaker to skip the event, as at least one congressman has said he would do to protest the pope's views on addressing climate change.

The pope leaves for New York City on Thursday, where he will address the United Nations and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden, among other events, before ending his American journey in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, a massive international Catholic festival.

At an evening press conference, Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said he believed the pope had "reached great moral authority" ahead of his addresses to Congress and the United Nations.

Pope Francis takes off for a return trip to Rome on Sunday night.

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