On A Wing and a Prayer: The Pope is Here!

Pope Francis Takes His First Steps in the United States

To use the terminology of bygone space exploration days, if Pope Francis were a lunar module, we would have said the minute he entered our atmosphere that the “pope has landed.” Indeed, his mere physical presence once he descended from the steps of that Alitalia plane—called “Shepherd One” for the purposes of this trip—has caused quite a metaphysical “splashdown,” such was the anticipation and the eagerness of people awaiting his arrival on these shores.

It was an overcast day when the pope and his party landed at Andrews Air Force Base shortly before 4PM; however, the color of the skies did not matter. The reception he received from the small welcoming party was as warm as any noonday sun and just as spectacular. The red carpet was laid out and once the pope appeared, joyous shouts of greeting could be heard. A military honor guard waited on either side of the red carpet while President Obama and Vice President Biden and their families awaited their distinguished guest.


There were a gathering of schoolchildren and further afield were very lucky people assembled in a makeshift reviewing stand ready to cheer Pope Francis when he came. When the plane landed, an assortment of church officials went aboard to greet the pope and to escort him down as he made his first steps on American soil. When the plane’s door opened, you could see the figure in white waiting in the shadows for the right moment to reveal himself. And when he did, he did so to acclaim. Having learned his lesson in Cuba, the pope grabbed his skullcap before the wind took it away; with that in hand, he then waved his first greeting in America.

At the bottom of the red-carpeted steps Pope Francis greeted the welcoming party, starting with the President and the First Lady (who was attired in blue), their two daughters, along with their grandmother (Michele Obama’s mother). The pope greeted the Vice President and his family and proceeded to greet the assembled clergy as well. All this, while the Secret Service stood guard throughout, mindful of who they were protecting, and why.

When the greetings were done (and after a formal review of the honor guard), the group followed the pope and the president to a nearby building on the base to have a quieter reception; after which the pope proceeded to his awaiting car. It was not the usual Ford Focus that Pope Francis normally travels in; because of the historic nature of the occasion, an official Vatican car, a black Fiat (which appeared to be Fiat’s version of a Ford Focus) with Vatican license plates “SCV 1” clearly visible was to be the vehicle for transporting the pope on this trip. With the flag of the Vatican City State fluttering from the front bumper, the car with the pope made the rounds through the crowds gathered before it proceeded out to the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington where the pope was to stay while in the capital city.

All the networks—including cable—were ready and willing to report on this first trip of the pope to America. ABC News, in partnership with America Media, specially covered the pope’s arrival with America’s Editor at Large, James Martin, S.J. present in the studio, helping to provide commentary. There was all kinds of speculation about the pope, about who he was, what he would say, and what he would do. Father Martin put it all in perspective when he said that Pope Francis’ basic goal was to “get back to the roots of Christianity” and that—as he has always done in the past on his trips—the pope wants to emphasize the importance of the poor among us and the environment that we live in; as Father Martin said of Pope Francis, he [the pope] wants to go around “proclaiming the Gospel as clearly as he can.” For Father Martin, the pope’s message was simply the Gospel, no more and no less.

The ABC News coverage of the pope’s arrival was anchored by George Stephanopolous; and along with Father Martin, additional insights and reflections were provided by other ABC News reporters and analysts, such as Matthew Dowd, Cokie Roberts, Terry Moran and Cecilia Vega. All contributed to the coverage of the day. Among the highlights were Mr. Dowd’s comment that because of the pope, people—perhaps for the first time in 20 years—have come to feel that the Catholic church is “in touch with them.” The point was raised that the biggest challenge for the pope on this trip to America might very well be the pope’s own “unpredictability,” given the pope’s penchant for spontaneous words, deeds and gestures. It was noted that an ABC News/Wall Street Journal poll recorded that 86% of respondents had a favorable view of the pope. Those are not bad numbers, given that there are 70 million Catholics in the United States. There were no formal addresses, words of greeting or welcome at this arrival, as is usually customary with formal ceremonies of this kind. Perhaps the bank of microphones were dispensed with to allow the pope some “down time” after his just completed journey to Cuba. However, there will be time enough in the coming days for him to speak and when he does he will have an attentive—if not rapt—audience.

In the run up to his visit, there have been rumblings among some about either the pope’s style and/or his message; there was a contretemps concerning the upcoming boycott of Arizona Republican congressman Paul Gosar (himself a Catholic) from the pope’s address to a joint session of Congress this Thursday (in which the pope will speak from a prepared text in English). But for the most part, people are eager to see and hear what Pope Francis has to say. As ABC’s Cecilia Vega, pointed out, there was a feel of a “Super Bowl party” to the pope’s arrival; the pope’s coming is viewed with happiness and anticipation.

The most unusual aspect of the day was when—on board the flight from Cuba to the United States—the pope related a story about a cardinal friend of his who told him of a woman who expressed concern that the pope might be “anti-Christ” because he chose not to wear the historical red shoes of the papacy. Whether this was a joke or not (and most likely a great misunderstanding), it detracts from the essential mission of the pope, which laypeople (and even some members of the clergy) have misunderstood: as Father Martin alluded, the pope is trying, by “gentle encouragement,” to get people back to the basics of the faith, by disregarding the outward trappings in order that we may return—and retain—to what is essential. As Father Martin pointed out when the panel discussed the circumstances of how the cardinals, when they elected Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio to be pontiff, they had no idea what kind of pontiff he would turn out to be; they thought they knew him; “but they forgot they elected a Jesuit.” When a new pope is elected, the person and the personality is changed as well, along with the name—and people often forget the transformative nature that is bestowed upon the elected, once that accepto is given in a conclave.

The pope had wide smiles today when he finally came upon America and Americans for the first time and he happily accepted the flowers and the greetings from a group of schoolchildren assembled to meet him at Andrews Air Force Base. As always, despite being amidst the pomp and circumstance, simplicity suited Pope Francis best. And when the welcoming ceremonies were over, and his motorcade reached the building which housed the Vatican mission, the gray late-day sky gave way to a pleasant and sunny last day-of-summer afternoon.

The pope had landed.

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