Meetings, prayer and parade: Pope Francis prepares for D.C. debut

Posted at 8:41 AM, Sep 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-23 08:41:35-04

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Pope Francis speaks directly to Americans for the first time Wednesday, as thousands of people gather in the shadow of the Washington Monument for a glimpse of the man whose humility and love for the poor has electrified the global Catholic Church.

President Barack Obama will deploy the full pageantry of the White House to officially welcome Francis, who at the age of 78 is making his debut visit to a nation pulsing with the market capitalism and rampant consumerism he often decries.

After speeches from the President and the Pope, the two men will hold private talks, with only a translator present, in the Oval Office. Officials will not disclose what they will discuss, but issues such as the U.S. opening to Cuba that Francis helped broker, immigration, economic inequality and climate change could come up.

Then, as an intense security operation swings into action, Francis will climb aboard his Popemobile, and slowly navigate a route through the ceremonial plaza south of the White House known as the Ellipse and onto the National Mall.

Huge crowds are expected to greet Francis, whose frequent shows of charity to the needy and spartan Jesuit lifestyle have helped reinvograte the image of the church after an era of abuse scandals thinned congregations.

The Pope’s speech will be closely watched for how far he strays onto perilous political ground on issues such as the treatment of undocumented migrants, abortion, global warming and the plight of those left destitute by capitalism’s excesses.

American Catholics also are waiting to see whether the Spanish-speaking Pope goes off script — as he sometimes does to speak candidly — or whether his lack of fluency in English will mean he is less spontaneous than usual.

Both Republicans and Democrats, feuding in the early exchanges of the 2016 presidential race, will find plenty to chew over in his remarks.

But as he flew to the United States from Cuba on Tuesday, Francis told reporters he was not a politician and rejected the idea that he was a socialist, or a “lefty” following complaints by some conservatives he has embraced too many progressive causes.

On his plane on the way to Washington , the Pope admitted he “may have given the impression of being a little more to the left, but it would not be a correct interpretation.”

“My doctrine … this is the social doctrine of the Church. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, meanwhile, said that Obama had no intention of using his talks with Francis to advance a political agenda, but did argue that the two leaders share common political and economic values.

“This is a president who has been animated even before he started running for public office by the idea that we need to fight for social and economic justice both in this country and around the world,” Earnest told CNN. “This has been a hallmark of Pope Francis even before he arrived in the Vatican.”

Francis will later preside over the canonization of 18th-century Spanish priest Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

On Thursday, in the most political moment of his trip, the Pope will address a joint meeting of Congress. Later in the week, he heads to New York, where he will address the United Nations before ending his six-day stay in the United States in Philadelphia on Sunday.