Thousands greet Pope Francis at the White House

Thousands of people gathered in Washington early Wednesday morning to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis as he launched his first visit to the United States with an elaborate ceremony at the White House.

Barack Obama formally welcomed the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to the United States at a White House event where the president said Amerivcansd were inspired by the pope’s message of love and hope.

President Obama and the First Family met Pope Francis at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on September 22, 2015 to kick off the first day of the Pontiff’s six-day American tour. Crowds on the tarmac chanted “welcome to the U-S-A” and “we walk with Francis every day” before the Pope boarded a Fiat bound for the nation’s capital. (Natalie Fertig / McClatchy)

“I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as pope, but to your unique qualities as a person,” Obama said.

“In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.”

All across the nation’s capital, people bundled up against a cool fall morning filled streets awaiting the pope’s first remarks and subsequent ride in a popemobile along a parade route around the Ellipse near the Washington Monument. About 11,000 ticketed guests waving Papal and American flags filled the South Lawn of the White House, some arriving as early as 5 a. m.

“As son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country,” Francis said, speaking in English to the crowd. “American Catholics are committed to building a society, which is truly tolerant and inclusive.” 

The 78-year-old Argentina-born pope has drawn crowds across the globe as he’s focused on contentious issues including climate change, income equality and immigration. He is credited with softening the tone of the church its opposition to homosexuality and easing the granting of marriage annulments.

“Working people welcome Pope Francis,” some in the crowds around town waved.

Francis told reporters traveling with him on his flight to the United States Tuesday that he was not aligned with any particular political movement though critics call him “liberal.”

“I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said. “I follow the church, and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”

Obama, who visited the Vatican last year, has credited Pope Francis for helping facilitate the beginning of normalization in relations between the United States and Cuba.

After 9 a.m., Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama walked out onto a small red carpet to greet Francis, who arrived in a modest dark grey Fiat 500L. The Obamas and Francis shook hands and smiled broadly. Cameras and cell phones shot up in the air with hopes to snag a shot of the spectacle.

After meeting with Obama inside the White House, the pontiff will visit the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle to pray with several hundred bishops before celebrating a 4:15 Mass 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 Congress before appearing on the balcony of the West Front of the Capitol to greet a crowd that was expected to swell to about 50,000.

“Pope Francis, we have seen, has really struck a chord,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “Not just across the United States but around the world. He serves as a source of inspiration not just for Catholics but of people of frankly all religions around the world.”

Earnest did not reveal the agenda for the meeting Wednesday, though said he would not describe it as a “social meeting.”

The pope also plans stops in Philadelphia and New York, where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly and multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

“The Pope’s central message will focus on an economy that leaves no one behind,” said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, a religious development coalition founded by a call from Pope John Paul II. LeCompte works with the Vatican and Catholic leadership on global finance and poverty. “This Pope speaks specifically on economic issues and how they impact poverty.” 

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