Demonstrating his trademark common touch, Pope Francis mingled with hundreds of fans on Wednesday as he headed for the White House — returning embraces, taking the hands of the faithful and smiling back at beaming young faces.
A huge crowd cheered the pope from behind security barricades as he left the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, where he had spent the night. They waved Vatican flags and snapped pictures with their phones. He lingered in conversation with some of them.
In a small black Fiat, the pope then took the short ride to the White House for an arrival ceremony, where President Barack Obama praised his "profound moral example."
“In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit," Obama told the pope, "we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds."
The president extended a welcome on behalf of 70 million American Catholics and the entire country. In a nod to the refugee crisis in Syria, Obama said that Francis reminded the world that God's most powerful message is mercy.
"That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart," Obama said. "From the refugee who flees war-torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, for those who have suffered, and those who have caused suffering and seek redemption."
The president expressed thanks to Francis for reminding the world of a “sacred obligation” to protect the planet, for encouraging reconciliation between the United States and Cuba, and for pushing humanity toward peace.
It was the start of a full day for the pope that also included two parades, a midday prayer with Catholic bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the controversial canonization of an 18th century missionary.
Across from St. Matthew's, where the pope was to appear at about 11 a.m. ET, a small crowd gathered on the street for a glimpse of him.
Laura Murphy, 57, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, said she didn't expect to see the pope for more than a few seconds, as he walked up the steps to the cathedral.
"The two seconds are worth it to me. I need to be a part of this," she said. "This pope is leading us in the right direction. He is asking us to do all the things that Jesus wanted us to do."
Daniel Marcinak, 11, traveled 12 hours by car from Peoria, Illinois, with his family and was hoping to see the pope outside St. Matthew's.
"It's awesome," Daniel said. "He's kind. He's humble. He's the successor to St. Peter, and I'm honored to be in his presence."
Francis touched down outside Washington on Tuesday afternoon and was greeted by the first family on the tarmac.
Aboard the papal plane from Cuba, Francis told reporters that his teachings on social issues are in lockstep with Catholic doctrine. He acknowledged that he is seen by some as a leftist.
Francis will address Congress on Thursday and the United Nations on Friday, then travel to Philadelphia to complete his six-day tour.