When Was The Last Time The Pope Visited The United States? Francis Is The First To Visit In Years

Pope Francis has landed. On Tuesday afternoon, the Pontiff's Alitalia flight AZ 4000, or volo papale , as it's known among the Vatican staff, touched down at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. to wild applause. Greeted by both President Obama and the first family, as well as a group of excited children from nearby Catholic schools, the occasion felt more like a buzzing movie premiere filled with celebrities than a gathering of religious leaders — not surprising, considering that the last time a pope visited the United States was just over seven years ago. The public was overdue for another papal call, and just as in 2008, its excitement showed.

On Tuesday, crowds of ardent supporters filled rows of bleachers, buzzing with anticipation and cheering loudly as the pope's plane, or "Shepherd One," as the media fondly calls it, descended from the skies. As the shiny white door to the papal plane was flung open, the crowd began chanting "We love Francis, yes we do, we love Francis, how 'bout you?" in English, and "Holy Father, bless your children," according to USA Today reporters on the scene. Those cheers grew even louder as the pope himself appeared at the doorway, waving to the crowd and smiling benevolently.


Pope Francis was met Tuesday by Obama and Vice President Biden, along with their extended families; The group made their way down a long pink carpet, greeting a small gathering of black-robed cardinals and archbishops, as well as an Air Force major general and several State Department employees. Even amid all the chaotic fervor, the pope managed to take everything in stride, stopping to shake hands with the crowd and pose for photos. As the parties dispersed to their respective transportation, Pope Francis climbed into a small black Fiat, waving good-naturedly as he sped away toward the White House.

The entire afternoon was largely reminiscent of a similar scene that played out in 2008 — only this time, the only thing that had changed was the president (and maybe the color of the pope's shoes — instead of Pope Benedict XVI's deep red Prada, Francis opted for simple black loafers).

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On April 15, 2008, Pope Benedict's Alitalia Boeing 777 landed similarly at Andrews Air Force Base to rowdy applause, as onlookers lined nearly identical rows of bleachers, chanting and screaming their support for the Pontiff. Descending the pink carpet-lined staircase to greet then President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and daughter Jenna, and a small crowd of archbishops and cardinals, Pope Benedict smiled broadly, seemingly taken aback by the intensity of the crowds.

"This is quite a moment for all of [the cardinals and bishops]," remarked papal expert Monsignor Thomas McSweeney of the procession, in a comment to MSNBC that afternoon. "Their hearts must be really palpitating." He added that the pope seemed "touched" by the greeting.

After a private 15 minute discussion with Bush, Pope Benedict was escorted to one of the president's secret service limousines and driven to the White House, where The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, and several members of the White House staff awaited him.

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Although both instances shared equal amounts of passionate fervor, the enthusiasm surrounding latter's reign would come to a grinding halt five years later, under dubious circumstances and rumors of troubling internal politics. According to The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz in 2013, Benedict's attempts at creating a more open Vatican after several notorious sex abuse scandals went overlooked, thanks in part to a "culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency and preferred a damage-control campaign that diverted attention from the institution's fundamental problems," as Horowitz described. Months later, Benedict resigned the papacy.

Those rumors were, for the most part, dismissed by the Vatican as idle gossip, but with the incoming Pontiff, Pope Francis, came a wave of fresh optimism and new outlook — one that manifested itself during Tuesday's papal visit. With unusually open-minded views on topics such as divorce, climate change, and the acceptance of LGBTQ members, Francis ushered in a new era of Catholicism that jump-started the public's intrigue and excitement once more.

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On Tuesday, that excitement was clearly evident. Monsignor John Enzler, CEO of Washington Catholic Charities, explained in a statement on CNN:

He is my hero. He lives the Gospel in the way I want to live it myself ... he tries to make sure that people all feel they are included. When I have a chance to meet him, and frankly just be with him, I am going to be lifted up myself. I am really psyched.