Washington: Mustering all the pageantry the White House has to offer, President Barack Obama welcomed Pope Francis to Washington on Wednesday.
The Pope arrived before an adoring crowd of 15,000 and a nation that seemingly cannot get enough of the humble pontiff who is rejuvenating American Catholicism while giving heartburn to some of its conservatives.
With flags snapping, colour guard at attention and a military band playing brassy marches, Francis stepped onto the South Lawn on a crisp fall morning that felt as optimistic as his own persona. The Obamas looked positively charmed when Francis' tiny Fiat pulled up, perhaps the smallest car that has ever brought a visiting dignitary to their lawn.
Pope and president stood on a red-carpeted platform bedecked with red, white and blue bunting to stand at attention for the national anthems of the Hole See and the United States.
Just before the pope arrived, Obama had tweeted to the Holy Father: "Welcome to the White House, @Pontifex! Your messages of love, hope, and peace have inspired us all."
After opening remarks on the lawn, the two were to head inside to the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting where each hoped to find common cause with the other on issues they hold dear.
The pope later in the morning was to speak to America's bishops, an address that was highly anticipated given a certain disconnect between Francis' focus on social justice and a merciful church and the culture wars that America's bishops have waged in recent years over abortion and gay rights.
From the instant the white-robed and grinning Francis landed in the US yesterday, doffed his skullcap in the breeze and clambered into his charcoal-gray Fiat, his visit has electrified wonky Washington, which can be jaded about the comings and goings of world figures.
Washington was the first stop on the pope's six-day, three-city visit to the United States.
People of all faiths wanted to be a part of it, from the hundreds on hand for his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base late Tuesday to the clumps of spectators outside the Vatican's diplomatic mission where the pope was staying to the throngs at the White House.
Kimberly Johnson, a 27-year-old medical student who lives in Washington, said she arrived outside the security gates at midnight in order to be the first one let into the sectioned-off viewing area that opened at 4 am.
"It's not just that he's the pope. He's a cool pope," Johnson said. "He's bringing the Catholic Church into the 21st century and making it a more accessible faith."
The pope took his time getting to the White House, stopping to greet schoolchildren who had gathered outside the Vatican's nunciature. The children took selfies with the pope, hugged him and waved Holy See flags.
Thousands more were gathering for a morning parade on streets near the White House.