Washington halts for Pope Francis, the most important man in the city this week
Pope Francis arrived in the U.S. and was greeted by cheering crowds and the Obama family. VPC
WASHINGTON — The most powerful people in the most powerful city in the world step to the sidelines Wednesday to make way for Pope Francis on his historic first visit to the nation’s capital.
The pontiff will visit President Obama at the White House on Wednesday morning, but unlike other visiting dignitaries, the president went to greet the pope at the airport when he arrived Tuesday afternoon.
Obama is the 11th consecutive president to meet with a pope, going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s meeting with Pope John XXIII on Dec. 6, 1959. But Pope Francis’ trip is the first papal visit to Washington since 2008.
The House and Senate are out of session Wednesday in recognition of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, but across the U.S. Capitol complex, staff are scrambling to prepare for Thursday’s first-ever papal speech to a joint session of Congress.
Many roadways in central Washington are closed or fenced off because of extensive security for the pope’s visit, but there is likely to be enormous foot traffic as people strain for a glimpse of the pontiff. After his meeting with the president Wednesday, Pope Francis will lead a parade around the Ellipse south of the White House.
He then travels a few blocks north for a midday prayer with U.S. bishops. Later in the afternoon he will celebrate a new saint with a canonization Mass for the Spanish missionary priest Junipero Serra at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The federal government remains open during the pope’s visit, but with much of the city on lockdown, federal employees in the area have been strongly encouraged to work from home or to take days off.
Two and a half years into a papacy made possible by the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has become wildly popular in the United States as his message of mercy has softened some of the church’s more traditional doctrines on sin and salvation. Eighty-six percent of Catholics and 65% of non-Catholics view him favorably, according to a Washington Post-CNN poll last week, and he’s popular with liberals and conservatives alike.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Obama, who spoke with Francis at the Vatican in 2014, said he wants to discuss their mutual interest in combating climate change. That issue has raised some hackles of Republicans in Congress, who have said they would prefer the pontiff stick to more theological issues than wade into a U.S. political fight.
Speaking to reporters on the papal plane Tuesday, the pope acknowledged that his emphasis on economic issues has led to a perception that he’s “a little bit more left-leaning.” But he rejected that characterization of his ideology.
“I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church,” he said. And if anyone doubts whether he’s still Catholic, he joked that he’s ready to recite the creed on request.