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Pope Francis’ Arrival in the U.S. Is a Low-Key Prelude to Pageantry

WASHINGTON — Pope Francis landed to a red-carpet welcome on Tuesday as he opened his first visit to the United States determined to press the world’s last superpower to do more to care for the planet and its most marginalized inhabitants.

The papal jet descended out of cloudy skies to touch down at Joint Base Andrews, the iconic post still better known as Andrews Air Force Base. His white robes flapping in the breeze and his skullcap held in his hand rather than on his head, the pontiff was greeted by President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their families.

The exuberant but unassuming ceremony seemed designed especially for a pope who has inspired millions around the world with a humbler, more populist approach to the papacy. Hundreds of guests cheered, an honor guard stood at attention and a high school band performed the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” Four children from local Roman Catholic schools greeted him, with one handing him flowers.

“Ho, ho, hey, hey, welcome to the U.S.A.,” the crowd chanted at one point. At another, it chanted, “We love Francis, yes we do. We love Francis, how about you?”

But there was little of the pageantry that awaits him at the White House on Wednesday. And the pope, who has made a point of shunning some of the perks of his exalted position since his ascension in 2013, then climbed into a decidedly modest Fiat 500L hatchback for the ride to the Apostolic Nunciature, the equivalent of an embassy, where he was staying.

The pope’s arrival inaugurated a journey spanning six days that will take him from here to New York and Philadelphia and feature several Masses celebrated before huge crowds, the first canonization on American soil, an address to Congress and not a small degree of tension over his message.

Many of his themes coincide with those of Mr. Obama, but some diverge in significant ways that could flavor the visit.

Francis became only the third pope to visit Washington, and the capital was abuzz over his arrival. A vast security cordon was established from the Capitol to the White House to the Apostolic Nunciature, including road closings and pedestrian limits. Tens of thousands of residents and visitors prepared to converge at his planned stops, and politicians of all stripes were busy claiming his moral authority for their causes.

“The pope is a singular figure, and he has really stirred the souls of people all around the world,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.

Francis arrived here from Cuba, where he concluded a four-day visit on Tuesday morning in its heartland of religion and revolution, visiting the shrine of the country’s patron in El Cobre and delivering his final words to the Cuban people in the nearby city of Santiago de Cuba.

He celebrated Mass at a church near the mountains of the Sierra Maestra that houses the 19th-century shrine of the Virgin of Charity. The shrine holds the country’s most venerated Catholic icon: a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary found in the nets of local fishermen more than 400 years ago. Afterward, he delivered an ode to family at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Santiago de Cuba.

While some had hoped he would raise the issues of human rights and political liberty with his Cuban hosts, Francis opted instead to be cautious. He did not meet with Cuban dissidents or directly challenge President Raúl Castro or his brother, Fidel, though some analysts interpreted several of his comments as veiled disapproval of the government’s ideological bent.

Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a Cuban former diplomat close to the Castros, said the pope’s restrained remarks worked to the advantage of both Cuba’s president and Mr. Obama because they allowed the two countries to continue their push toward normal relations. “It’s a win-win situation for these three guys,” he said. “They all want the same thing.”

Speaking with reporters on the flight to the United States, Francis disagreed with the suggestion that he had been “soft” on the Cuban government, describing the trip as pastoral and intended to give hope to ordinary people. He said he turned down all requests for private meetings, including one with visiting heads of state, but added that the Vatican’s ambassador invited dissidents to his appearance at the cathedral in Santiago.

Even as Newsweek asked on its cover, “Is the Pope Catholic?” Francis rejected the notion that he is an anticapitalist leftist not committed enough to church teachings.

“I have never said anything that is not in the social doctrine of the church,” he said, alluding to provocative speeches on the excesses of capitalism. “Maybe some things sounded slightly leftish, but that would be the wrong interpretation.”

Clearly intent on pushing back against critics who question his brand of Catholicism, he jokingly volunteered to recite the Creed, the Catholic statement of faith. He also told a story, relayed to him by a cardinal, that a woman had insisted that he was the “anti-pope” because he did not wear red papal shoes.

While he appeared a little weary as he landed at Andrews, in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, Francis, 78, smiled broadly and seemed delighted to be here. Mr. Obama clapped, shook his hand and then introduced his wife, Michelle, his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. Mr. Biden, the first Catholic vice president, did the same with his wife, Jill, and his granddaughters Maisy and Finnegan.

The president’s personal welcome was a sign of respect. Presidents rarely greet foreign visitors at Andrews, instead waiting for them to make their way to the White House. President George W. Bush made an exception in 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI arrived for a visit, and Mr. Obama followed suit.

The White House sought to highlight the alignment between the president and the pope, while de-emphasizing areas of discord. “Both President Obama and Pope Francis have over the course of their careers demonstrated a commitment to values related to social and economic justice,” Mr. Earnest, the spokesman, said.

Several liberal House Democrats released three short videos on Tuesday beseeching Pope Francis to discuss immigration, climate change andpoverty in his address to Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined low-wage contract workers from the Capitol and other federal buildings who were striking for higher pay and the right to join a union.

On the other side of the ideological divide, abortion opponents were hoping that Pope Francis would help lift their bid to impose new limits on the procedure and cut off federal financing for Planned Parenthood. Just hours before the pope’s arrival, Senate Republicans tried and failed to break a filibuster on legislation that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Yet Pope Francis may also make points that challenge both parties, particularly if he repeats his condemnation of what he sees as the excesses of globalization and capitalism. And he may discomfort both the White House and Congress if he urges them to do more to help the Syrian refugees flooding through Europe, although he said on the plane that he did not plan to criticize the embargo of Cuba during his stay.

Francis is scheduled to attend an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning, with about 15,000 people gathered on the grounds and the nearby Ellipse. He will meet with Mr. Obama for about 45 minutes alone in the Oval Office while Mr. Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who is also Catholic, meet separately with the Vatican secretary of state.

After leaving the White House, Francis will lead a brief parade in hispopemobile around the Ellipse and hold prayers at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Later in the afternoon, he is scheduled to celebrate Mass for about 30,000 people, including Mr. Biden, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University of America, and canonize the Rev. Junípero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan friar known for starting nine Spanish missions in California in the 1700s.

The centerpiece of the pope’s stay in Washington will be his address to a joint meeting of Congress — a first in American history — on Thursday morning at the invitation of Speaker John A. Boehner, a Catholic Republican from Ohio.

About 50,000 people have been invited to the West Lawn of the Capitol, where they will be able to watch the pope’s address on large television screens and perhaps catch a glimpse of him waving from the speaker’s balcony.