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Pope Francis Arrives At Joint Base Andrews For First-Ever U.S. Visit


For the first time ever, Pope Francis is in the United States. The pope's chartered Alitalia jet touched down at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington this afternoon. President Obama and Vice President Biden were on hand to greet him.


Washington is the first stop on a U.S. tour that also includes New York City and Philadelphia. Ari talked with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley earlier today as the pope arrived.

SHAPIRO: Hi Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you Ari.

SHAPIRO: How typical is it for President Obama, let alone, President Obama and his family, to make the trip to Andrews Air Force Base to greet a visiting leader?

HORSLEY: Well, it is certainly unusual, but it's not unprecedented. President Bush also extended a similar welcome when Pope Benedict visited back in 2008, but the fact that Sasha and Malia, the president's daughters, are on hand is a sign of just how much history is being made here. Vice President Biden, a devout Catholic, is here and he's brought along a couple of his grandchildren. And then there are a lot of schoolchildren from various Catholic schools in the Washington area. And the Vatican selected four of those youngsters - a first, third, fifth and seventh-grader - to greet the pope, and one of the children was set to present the pontiff with some flowers.

SHAPIRO: As we are hearing in the background, the crowds at Andrews cheering for the pope and the president, these people who have been waiting for a very long time to see this leader. On Thursday, the pope plans to address members of Congress, and he is, I think, more popular than virtually (laughter) any American politician at this point. I hate to sound cynical, but, are any politicians hoping to gain some points from the pope's visit?

HORSLEY: Ride the papal coattails a little bit here? Sure. And before that meeting - the address to Congress on Thursday - the pope has another big arrival ceremony at the White House tomorrow, where some 15,000 people are expected to assemble on the South Lawn and the neighboring Ellipse. So just another sign of the pope's popularity. But certainly for President Obama, this is an opportunity to align himself with a very popular pope, and one with whom he sees eye to eye on some issues, not all issues, but some issues. Certainly they are both very interested in issues like alleviating poverty, dealing with income inequality, the pope's talked a lot about immigration, which is high on the president's agenda, and, especially, climate change.

SHAPIRO: Despite those issues on which they see eye to eye, this president has at times had strained relations with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, American bishops particularly.

HORSLEY: Certainly. And of course there are strong differences too on issues such as abortion and birth control. The president is still locked in legal battles with various Catholic-affiliated organizations that don't like the birth control mandate that's part of Obama's signature health care law. But those are not the issues that the pope, that Pope Francis, has chosen to emphasize. Those are not front burner issues for this pope. And that's why, maybe more so than his predecessor, this is a pope with whom President Obama thinks he can do business. I say that even as the White House is cautioning that their meeting tomorrow will not be a transactional meeting, like, say the meeting with Chinese President Xi will be later this week, but rather, an opportunity for two men who share a lot of similar values to talk about that.

SHAPIRO: Just to describe the scene for a moment, President Obama and his family are walking with the pope and other leaders of the Catholic Church who have just arrived on this chartered Alitalia jet, and there's a crowd of people behind a fence cheering and waving at Andrews.

Just briefly, Scott, we understand the pope spoke to reporters on the plane. It doesn't sound like he said much that was terribly surprising. What were the thrust of his comments?

HORSLEY: Well, of course he was on his way from Cuba, and he was asked about the U.S. embargo against Cuba. He said he'd like to see that lifted but doesn't expect to address that directly during his address to Congress. Of course, this pope played an important role in brokering the diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, and in fact the Vatican hosted some of the secret negotiations that preceded that historic announcement last December.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thanks Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.