WASHINGTON DC —
Under gray skies, Pope Francis arrived Tuesday afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, beginning his historic six-day visit to the United States.
The pope's aircraft, dubbed Shepherd 1, touched down at 3:49 p.m. at the suburban Washington base. Waiting to greet him were U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, along with other U.S. officials.
The pope also was met by a retinue of cardinals, dressed in black cassocks with scarlet sashes. Hundreds of other spectators gathered on bleachers.
"Pope Francis! Pope Francis!" rose a chant as the pontiff descended stairs from the airliner, his white skullcap in hand.
Washington is the first stop on the pontiff's visit to three U.S. East Coast cities: Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Francis came straight from a four-day trip to Cuba, a progression that makes sense not only geographically but symbolically. The pontiff played a secret backstage role in reconnecting the former Cold War rivals in a thaw announced last December.
On Wednesday, the pope is scheduled to make a formal visit to the White House, where he'll be hosted by the president. Obama and Francis first met at the Vatican in March 2014.
Francis has been invited to speak at a joint session of Congress on Thursday and to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. On Saturday morning, he'll travel to Philadelphia for this weekend’s World Meeting of Families.
His talks are expected to include critiques of the dominance of finance and technology; a condemnation of world powers over the conflicts gripping the planet; appeals to protect and welcome immigrants; and climate change.
In Cuba, the Latin American pope celebrated a Mass – the last of three – at the Basilica of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country's holiest shrine. With President Raul Castro attending, the pontiff urged Cubans to rediscover their Catholic heritage and live a “revolution of tenderness."
The pope's homily was the latest in a series of carefully worded critiques of Cuba’s atheist communist government. Installed after the 1959 revolution, it sought to replace the church as a guiding force in people's lives.
The pope prayed for reconciliation among all Cubans, both at home and around the world.
The 78-year-old Francis appeared to be moving in discomfort during Tuesday’s Mass in Cuba. He suffers from a bad knee and sciatica, a condition that causes intense pain in the lower back and down the leg.
He'd had a packed schedule in the Caribbean island nation after arriving there Saturday. He visited three cities, celebrating Mass, performing blessings and prayer services, shaking countless hands with adoring crowds. He also met with both Fidel and Raul Castro, the brothers who have ruled the country since 1959.