WASHINGTON — Pope Francis arrived in Washington on Tuesday to a joyous greeting from well-wishers as he began the historic visit that millions of Americans have been awaiting and for which three of the country's great cities have been anxiously preparing.
The pope's white and green Alitalia jetliner touched down at 3:50 p.m. on a flight from Cuba at the start of a spiritual and political journey that will take him to the centers of U.S. government, power and history.
Beneath gray skies, the pope stepped off the airplane at 4:05 p.m. at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County and was welcomed by President Barack Obama and a cheering crowd assembled on metal bleachers.
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 Joe Biden, Jill Biden and Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, among others.
The popular 78-year-old Argentina-born pope, who has softened the church's tone, focused on climate change and the poor, and seized a spot on the global stage, is making his first trip ever to the United States.
He plans to visit the White House, and address Congress and United Nations.
As he walked along an airport red carpet with his unusual gait, a group of Catholic clergy clad in black cassocks with crimson sashes were lined up, and the throng of mostly young people chanted, "Ho ho, hey hey, welcome to the USA!"
On Wednesday, the pope is scheduled to visit the White House and Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. He will also greet tens of thousands of people during a popemobile 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 and Thursday.
He is scheduled to leave for New York on Thursday then travel to Philadelphia in a visit that will end Sunday.
Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of dignitaries, students and a band from DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, gathered on the bleachers, chanting "We Love Francis! How about you!" before the pope's arrival.
In an atmosphere that was part pep rally, part prayer group, the band played pop music tunes and members of the welcoming committee said Hail Marys as they waited for the pope's plane.
When Francis finished greeting the dignitaries, he approached four school children, who presented him with a bouquet of white flowers. He smiled, bent over and spoke with them.
The pope left the base in a motorcade, riding in a small black Fiat, escorted by huge SUVs, and waving through the open window as he headed for the Vatican's Apostolic Nunciature in Northwest Washington, where he is to stay
In a press conference held in the District after the pope's arrival, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called the visit, a "new encounter."
Francis "has an attitude of one to receive, not just to give," he said.
Among those in the crowd at the base were Dorothy Newman, 74, and her longtime friend Betty Lee, who said she was "around the same age," of St. Joseph's parish in Largo.
The two seemed delighted as they left the ceremony. Lee held a balled-up tissue she had used to wipe tears from her eyes.
Newman said she has seen all three recent popes, but no one like Francis.
"He's just saying what the people want to hear and have wanted to hear for a long time," she said, clutching a water bottle.
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.
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.
On the flight from Cuba, Francis seemed to reject characterizations of himself as aligned with any particular political movement. "I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church," he told reporters. "I follow the church, and in this, I do not think I am wrong."
"Maybe I have given an impression of being a little bit to the left," he said. "But if they want me to recite the Creed, I can!"
[Pope Francis defends his views in conversation on papal plane]
The pope leaves Washington on Thursday afternoon for New York, where he will address the United Nations on Friday, visit the Ground Zero Memorial, and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden.
He will fly to Philadelphia on Saturday to visit Independence Hall, where he will speak at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address, and say Mass on Sunday at the World Meeting of Families. He will return to Rome on Sunday evening.
Upon his arrival in the District, he was greeted by another cheering crowd at the nunciature.
People had started gathering hours earlier, singing hymns in Spanish and dancing in a circle led by musicians.
Among them were Michelle and Luis Padilla of Burtonsville, Md. The Catholic municipal workers said they requested five days off of work as soon as they learned the pope planned to visit the United States.
Luis Padilla, 48, said seeing a pope in the flesh was on his bucket list. "It's like how people want to shake hands with a rocker at a concert," he said. "Just like that."
Part of the appeal, they said, was seeing the first pope from a Latin American country, but Michelle Padilla said a bigger appeal was Francis's accessibility and down-to-earth nature.
But there were also those who were not so well disposed toward the leader of the world's Catholics.
A group of women held signs protesting the Catholic church's handling of its ongoing pedophile priest scandal.
Becky Ianni held up a photo of herself as a child, saying she left the church for what she called a failure to crack down on clergy sexual abuse.
"When the pope comes into town, we've seen posters everywhere, pope cocktails and pope bobbleheads and such good feeling," said Ianni, who leads the Virginia chapter of SNAP, a group that advocates for people who were abused by priests. "But on the other side of the coin are all the victims that are still hurting."
Nearby, Russell Heiland and Anthony Ezzell, of Reston, Va., stopped by the nuniciature to get a glimpse of the pope before their celebrating their 25th anniversary at a restaurant in Washington.
The pope earned acclaim for his stance toward gays and lesbians when he was asked about a supposedly gay priest and replied: "Who am I to judge?"
"It's not where I'd like to see the Church today, but it's significant," said Heiland. "It's a far cry from where the church was several years ago."
The pope arrived in the United States after a visit to Cuba, during which he urged Cubans to undertake a "revolution of tenderness'' at a time of change as the nation re-establishes relations with the United States after decades of Cold War-spawned hostility.
Shortly before 12:30 p.m., the pontiff's jet left the city of Santiago after farewell greetings from dignitaries including Cuban President Raúl Castro.
Francis - speaking hours earlier at a site of important national unity in Cuba - steered clear of previous comments during the trip that indirectly, but clearly, jabbed at Cuba's leaders to offer more room for civil and faith groups, and speed permission for new Catholic churches.
The pontiff, however, urged Cubans to look to themselves - not the state - to transform their lives and communities.
"We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness," the pope said at a Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, just outside Santiago, one of Cuba's most sacred sites. Santiago, in eastern Cuba, also carries deep ideological symbolism as the birthplace of Fidel Castro's revolution in the 1950s.
"Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion," the pope said. "And it leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others."
"The soul of the Cuban people . . . was forged amid suffering and privation which could not suppress the faith," he said. "Grandmothers, mothers and so many others . . . kept open a tiny space, small as a mustard seed."
Washington Post staff writers David Montgomery, Nick Miroff, Fenit Nirappil, Mike DeBonis, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.