President, First Lady Obama Welcome Pope Francis for His First White House Visit

(Photo: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama and a teeming crowd of politicians, luminaries and ordinary citizens greeted Pope Francis at the White House with sustained cheers Wednesday on his historic first visit to the nation’s capital.

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. Thousands of guests gathered on the South Lawn of the White House for the papal welcome ceremony. Crowds began lining up around the White House complex well before 4 a.m. for the 9 a.m. ceremony.

First lady Michelle Obama posted a photo of the White House preparations on Instagram Tuesday.

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 lawmakers, like Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., set off early to join the crowds at the White House.

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 about 300 U.S. bishops.

The event at St. Matthews is closed to the public. But Sharon Savinski, a native Washingtonian, is one of 50 lucky parishioners to have tickets for a spot outside. She said she is thrilled to get a closeup of Francis. “He is just an example of goodness He brings joy to life,” she says.

Asked what she would say to the pope if she had a chance to meet him, Savinski leaned back and closed her eyes “I would thank him for his humanity,” she said.

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Paul Singer, Gregory Korte and David Jackson

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