Pomp, protocol await Pope Francis on White House visit

Monday, September 14, 2015
President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis in March 2014 at the Vatican. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais ~ Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- When Pope Francis arrives in the United States, he will get an airport welcome few world leaders ever have received: a plane-side greeting from President Barack Obama.

The extraordinary gesture Sept. 22 is just the beginning of the pomp and protocol Washington will put on display to welcome the popular leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and the head of Vatican City on his first U.S. visit.

The next day, Francis will be just the third pope to visit the White House, being greeted as most heads of state are, with his car pulling slowly up the South Lawn's driveway to the spot where a red carpet will be rolled out and Obama and his wife, Michelle, will be waiting.

Thousands of invited guests, including many Catholics, will gather on the lawn to receive Francis.

"Like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States," Obama told a prayer breakfast this year.

The president and the pope met for the first time in March 2014 at the Vatican, and Obama has been outspoken about his admiration for the 78-year-old native of Argentina. Despite differences over abortion, the two have found common ground on such issues as U.S. policy toward Cuba and Iran, climate change, poverty and income inequality.

Nothing that happens behind the iron gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on the late-September morning of Francis' visit will come as a surprise to the Holy Father. It is standard for White House staff, including from the first lady's and social secretary's offices, to work out the details of such appearances beforehand with the visitor's representatives.

"So much of arrival ceremonies are steeped in history and tradition," said Anita McBride, who was an assistant to President George W. Bush, who received Pope Benedict XVI at the White House in April 2008. "Every arrival ceremony is important. Every single foreign visitor is treated with the same level of respect and planning."

Francis has shown little interest in protocol and the trappings of his office, shunning both the fancy papal apartment and motorcade, for example. But he puts himself through the motions of diplomatic etiquette to be respectful of his hosts.

The motions at the White House for Francis will last about 90 minutes, the total of the pontiff's visit.

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