JOINT BASE ANDREWS — Pope Francis arrived for his first visit to the United States Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and was greeted with a lively welcome from President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, along with various priests and officials from the U.S. archdioceses and the DeMatha Catholic High School band.
The crowd in the nearby stands cheered on, chanting “Ho Ho! Hey Hey! Welcome to the U.S.A.”, while the pope, 78, walked down the stairs from the Alitalia aircraft and on to a red carpet.
Band members from the DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville have been preparing for the Pope’s arrival since late August, and greeted the spiritual leader with what percussion player Kevin Carruthers, 17, described as “fun tunes” including “Happy” by artist Pharrell and “Clocks” by U.K. band Coldplay.
“It’s very exciting,” Carruthers said before the show. “It’ll be the biggest performance of my life.”
At the end of the red carpet, the pope shook hands with the crowd and accepted flowers from children from nearby Catholic schools.
With a tight schedule of only three days in Washington, the pontiff’s first official stop is expected to be at the White House to meet again with Obama at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday.
For Diana Sales and her husband, Bob Sales, of Dayton, Maryland, welcoming the Pope was an experience that she described as “heavenly.”
“It was more than I could have imagined,” Sales said. “The best spiritual experience I ever had. What a lovely man.”
The two will be traveling to the White House, with what they describe as “15,000 of (their) closest friends” to see the Pope Wednesday morning, when officials open the back lawn to visitors.
“He’s for everyone,” Diana Sales said. “He’s for the people. He’s bringing more Catholics back into the church, especially for the young people.”
“In his Fiat,” joked her husband Bob Sales, referring to the tiny Italian automobile that Pope Francis got into after his arrival.
Pope Francis’ visit to the White House will be followed by a parade open to the public along 15th Street and Constitution Avenue and 17th Street; a midday prayer with U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral; and a canonization of late 18th-century California missionary Junipero Serra while celebrating a Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Invited by House Speaker John Boehner, the Pope is also set to address Congress in a joint session on Thursday followed by a visit to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the District.
Michael Steele, former Republican National Convention chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and a Catholic, said Pope Francis’ visit to Congress is going to be one of the most fun events to watch.
“I think he’ll have a lot to say to Congress,” Steele said. “Some folks are already anticipating what he’s going to say. I would advise them not to do that. I would advise them to just sit back and listen.”
Steele said he also heard that some people were planning to boycott the Pope’s visits, a concept he described as “crazy.”
“Just take the moment and appreciate what the pope has to say to all of us, irrespective of your faith, your political orientation,” Steele said. “His message transcends all of that.”
Howard Hines of Reston, Virginia, who welcomed the pontiff’s arrival with his wife, Bonnie, said that Pope Francis is unpredictable, something, he said, that could be dangerous for the pope.
“That’s not a thing I like most about him … He speaks off the cuff a lot,” Hines said. “But I like him because, despite all of his encouragement for the mercy of God, (Pope) Francis is a very orthodox pope. How could he be anything less?”
Before his late afternoon departure to New York, Pope Francis is expected to visit several Catholic churches and charities associated with the Archdiocese of Washington, including the St. Maria’s Meals program.
Pope Francis is the fourth pope to visit the White House, with the last being Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, when former president George W. Bush was in office. Pope Paul VI visited in 1965 with President Lyndon Johnson. Pope John Paul II first visited the White House in 1979 with President Jimmy Carter, then in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan and finally in 1993 with President Bill Clinton.
AAA Mid-Atlantic warned D.C. residents and commuters within the D.C. metropolitan area to expect traffic to be congested Tuesday through Thursday due to the Pope’s arrival, which is expected to cause delays on highways and on the Metrorail.
AAA also urged government employees, commuters and those living within the city to opt for other means of transportation, including biking and walking, and suggested teleworking for those who have the option.