WASHINGTON — Pope Francis landed to a red carpet welcome here on Tuesday afternoon as he opened his first visit to the United States determined to press the world’s last superpower to do more to care for the planet and its most marginalized inhabitants.
The papal jet swooped out of cloudy skies to touch down at Joint Base Andrews, the iconic post still better known as Andrews Air Force Base and home of the presidential air fleet. As the pontiff disembarked, he was greeted by President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their wives, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden.
The pope’s arrival started a six-day journey that will take him from here to New York and Philadelphia and feature several Masses celebrated before huge crowds, the first canonization on American soil, an address to Congress and not a small degree of tension over his message. Many of his themes coincide with those of Mr. Obama, but they also diverge in significant ways that could flavor the visit.
Pope Francis becomes only the third pope to visit Washington and the capital was abuzz over his arrival. A vast security cordon was established from the Capitol to the White House to the Apostolic Nunciature where he will stay, including road closures and pedestrian limits. Tens of thousands of residents and visitors from out of town prepared to converge at his various planned stops and politicians of all stripes were busy claiming his moral authority for their particular causes.
“The pope is a singular figure and he has really stirred the souls of people all around the world,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
Pope Francis arrived here from Cuba, where he wrapped up a four-day visit on Tuesday morning in the country’s heartland of religion and revolution, visiting the shrine of the country’s patron in El Cobre and delivering his final words to the Cuban people in the nearby city of Santiago de Cuba.
He celebrated Mass at a church near the mountains of the Sierra Maestra that houses the 19th century shrine of the Virgin of Charity. The shrine holds the country’s most venerated Roman Catholic icon: a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that was found in the nets of local fishermen more than 400 years ago.
Afterward, he delivered an ode to the family as his final address at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba, drawing a parallel between the lessons of God and lessons of the home.
“Without family, without the warmth of home, life grows empty, there is a weakening of the networks which sustain us in adversity, nurture us in daily living and motivate us to build a better future,” he told those in attendance.
Pope Francis opened his visit to the United States at Andrews, in the Maryland suburbs, where hundreds of guests invited mainly by the Apostolic Nunciature, the equivalent of an embassy, waited on metal bleachers to greet him. More than a dozen church leaders were invited to join Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and their wives on the tarmac, while an honor guard stood at attention and a high school band performed. Mr. Obama brought his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, while Mr. Biden brought two of his granddaughters, Maisy and Finnegan.
No speeches were planned for the arrival but the Vatican selected four children in first, third, fifth and seventh grades from different Catholic schools in the Washington area to greet him, one with flowers.The pope then planned to head separately to the Apostolic Nunciature for the night.
The president’s personal welcome was a sign of respect. Presidents rarely greet foreign visitors at Andrews, instead waiting for them to make their way to the White House. The only time Mr. Obama has gone to Andrews to meet a head of state was last year when President François Hollande of France was visiting – and only because the two then boarded Air Force One to fly to Charlottesville, Va.
But President George W. Bush made an exception in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI arrived for a visit and Mr. Obama decided to follow suit. Mr. Biden, the nation’s first Catholic vice president, was eager to join him. It was the first encounter between Mr. Obama and Pope Francis since they first met at the Vatican last year.
The White House sought to highlight the alignment between the president and the pope, while de-emphasizing areas of discord. “Both President Obama and Pope Francis have over the course of their careers demonstrated a commitment to values related to social and economic justice,” said Mr. Earnest, the spokesman.
Several liberal House Democrats released three short videos on Tuesday beseeching Pope Francis to address immigration, climate change and poverty in his address to Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined low-wage contract workers from the Capitol and other federal buildings who were striking for higher pay and the right to join a union.
On the other side of the ideological divide, abortion opponents were hoping that Pope Francis would boost their bid to impose new limits on the procedure and cut off federal financing of Planned Parenthood. Just hours before his arrival, Senate Republicans tried and failed to break a filibusteron legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Yet Pope Francis may also make points that challenge both parties, particularly if he repeats his remarks against what he sees as the excesses of globalization and capitalism. And he may discomfort both the White House and Congress if he urges them to do more to help Syrian refugees flooding through Europe; Mr. Obama has ordered another 10,000 Syrians be admitted in the next year, but that remains a fraction of what human rights groups have recommended.
Pope Francis is scheduled to attend a pomp-filled arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning, complete with a 21-gun salute, a Marine band playing the pontifical anthem and about 15,000 people gathered on the grounds and the nearby Ellipse. Afterward, Mr. Obama and Pope Francis will meet for about 45 minutes alone in the Oval Office while Mr. Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also Catholic, meet separately with the Vatican secretary of state.
After leaving the White House, Pope Francis will lead a brief parade in his popemobile around the Ellipse and hold prayers at St. Matthews Cathedral. Later in the afternoon, he is scheduled to celebrate Mass for about 30,000, including Mr. Biden, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of America.
During the Mass, Pope Francis will canonize Rev. Junipero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan friar known for starting nine Spanish missions in California in the 1700s, the first canonization on United States soil. To the church, Mr. Serra is seen as a hero who spread the gospel to the New World. But Native American groups condemn him for harsh treatment of the indigenous population.
The centerpiece of the pope’s stay in Washington will be his address to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday morning at the invitation of Speaker John A. Boehner, a Catholic Republican from Ohio, also a first in American history. Demand for scarce tickets has been so high that congressional officials imposed unusual limits on many who normally have rights to the House floor.
Mr. Boehner’s office released 50,000 tickets for senators and representatives to distribute to constituents for access to the West Lawn of the Capitol where they will be able to watch the pope’s address on jumbo television screens and possibly catch a glimpse of him waving from the speaker’s balcony.
By stopping in Cuba before his much-awaited visit to the United States, Pope Francis was taking something of a papal victory lap, celebrating the role he played in brokering a thaw in relations between Havana and Washington. The pope used his star power to bolster the standing of the church in Cuba, where it was marginalized by the government for years.
There were some expectations that he would raise the issues of human rights and political liberty with his hosts, but Pope Francis opted instead to be cautious. He did not meet with Cuban dissidents or directly challenge President Raúl Castro or his brother, Fidel, though he did make several comments that some analysts interpreted as veiled disapproval of the government’s ideological bent. The pope did not speak out against the American trade embargo against Cuba, either.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Pope Francis had spoken with “clarity, discretion and restraint,” and that it was not his role to be provocative on domestic political issues.
“The pope wants to make a contribution, but the responsibility lies with the leaders of nations,” Father Lombardi told reporters at a news conference Monday night. “He does not want to exaggerate his role. He just wants to contribute by making suggestions, promoting dialogue, justice and the common good of people.”
Still, at the Mass on Tuesday morning with President Castro in attendance, the pope once more urged Cubans to embrace service over ideals, a theme that was seen as a commentary on the Communist government that has ruled the country for more than 50 years.
“Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others,” Pope Francis said of the church.
Some analysts said Pope Francis’s restrained remarks worked to the advantage of Cuba’s leaders and the Obama administration. They saw the visit as a success because it allowed all parties to keep moving toward normalized relations.
“It’s a win-win situation for these three guys,” said Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a Cuban former diplomat who is close to the Castros. “They all want the same thing.”