Pope Benedict and President Bush at Andrews Air Force Base.
Pope Benedict and President Bush at Andrews Air Force Base. CS PHOTO BY RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO
With President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush welcoming him at Andrews Air Force Base, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the United States April 15 to begin his first pastoral visit to this country as pontiff.

Under bright skies and slightly cool temperatures, the plane carrying the Holy Father, Vatican dignitaries and a host of foreign journalists landed at 3:54, about six minutes ahead of schedule.

Stepping out of the Airitalia jet dubbed "Shepherd One," the pope was greeted with the cheers and shouts of about 2,500 spectators and met with the flourish and pomp of a color guard. The Holy Father smiled as he waved to those who had gathered to meet him.

After descending the stairs, he was greeted by President and Mrs. Bush and their daughter Jenna.

Also greeting the pope were Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Washington Auxiliary Bishops Francisco Gonzalez and Martin Holley, Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Tucson, Ariz., Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, vice president of the USCCB vice president; Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Archdiocese; Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States; and Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

President Bush made history by greeting the pope at Andrews Air Force Base. It is the first time that a president has traveled to the suburban Maryland air base to greet an arriving head of state. Traditionally, the president greets foreign dignitaries at a formal White House reception. Such a reception would be held for the pontiff April 16.

Joe Hagin, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, said that normally, foreign dignitaries and heads of state who arrive at Andrews are met by a "small" delegation in a "protocol arrival ceremony not normally opened to the public."

But, such was not the case for Pope Benedict XVI.

"The president thinks it is very appropriate to offer this warm welcome and wants to make sure everything goes absolutely perfect for the Holy Father's visit," Hagin said before the pope's arrival.

He noted that both the president and the first lady have met with the pope on several occasions previously and feel a sense of friendship with him.

"'Pomp and Circumstance' is an honor we can bestow on a leader, but the president just wanted to go a little beyond that," Hagin said of the Bushes meeting the pope at the air base.

After greeting the dignitaries, Pope Benedict was escorted by President Bush to a building near the tarmac, where the two spoke privately for several minutes. After leaving the building and heading for his limousine, a group of well-wishers sang "Happy Birthday" to the pope, who would celebrate his 81st birthday the next day, April 16.

Waving American and Vatican flags and cheering their good wishes, well-wishers, including military personnel and their families, senior military officials, Catholics from around the region and others waited up to five hours on the tarmac to see the pontiff arrive. The arrival ceremony itself was brief, and no speeches were made.

Prior to the pope's arrival, music was provided by the wind ensemble of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, the Catholic high school nearest to the air base.

"The kids are very excited to be playing for the pope," said Anthony Conto, director of the ensemble. "This has been a very neat experience."

For McNamara senior Catherine Donley, a parishioner at St. John Vianney Parish in Prince Frederick and member of the band, playing at the arrival ceremony made her "a little bit nervous, but really excited."

"I never thought this would happen, that I would be able to see the pope," she said.

In addition to the wind ensemble, about 100 other McNamara students and school officials attended the arrival ceremony.

Seniors Kelly Kostellnik of Owings, Christopher Burke of Clinton, and Chelsie Smith of Clinton joined their classmates in waving flags and cheering for the pope.

Kostellnik called the opportunity to see the pope "pretty awesome, a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

"This is fabulous for me, even though I am a non-Catholic, Burke said. "I attend Catholic high school and I've learned Catholic beliefs and I know how important the pope is."

Smith, also a non-Catholic, said greeting the pope "is the most amazing thing. Even for non-Catholics, everybody knows the pope."

Heather Gossart, president of the high school, said the students attending the ceremony "were so thrilled and so excited to be representing not only their school, but all the youth across the country in greeting the Holy Father."

"This is the first time - and maybe the only time in their lives - that they are participating in something like this," she said.

Prior to the Pope Benedict's arrival, the students were greeted by Archbishop Wuerl. He reminded the students "what a great opportunity it is to meet the pope," and encouraged them to cheer loudly so that the pope could hear them.

The cheering, enthusiasm, joy and excitement on the tarmac was not confined to the students.

Dressed in fatigues and clutching both her rosary and an American flag was Leonarda Malyemezian, who is stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. "I am just ecstatic to see the pope because I've been a Catholic my whole life" she said. "My whole family is so excited that I'm here - how many times do you get the chance to meet the pope?"

For Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacqueline White, a Catholic who works in non-destructive inspections at Andrews, greeting the pope was important to her "because of what he represents."

"The Holy Father represents peace, and that is something important to someone like me in the military," the Baltimore native said. She added that she was honored and excited to greet the pope and did not mind the five-hour wait to catch a glimpse of him.

Father James Hamel, an Air Force captain who serves as Catholic chaplain at Andrews, said for the 600 Catholic families on base, "the mood is one of great excitement. It has been almost a carnival atmosphere - the families are excited, but spiritually uplifted, to greet the pope."

"I hope his visit is a great uplifting experience for the United States," Father Hamel said. "This is an exciting time to have the successor of St. Peter on U.S. soil."

Noting that President Bush was on base to greet Pope Benedict, the chaplain said he was particularly aware that he was in the presence of "the two who are on the top of my chain of command on both the Church and military sides."