Pope sets foot on U.S. soil for first time as pontiff

He landed in the nation's capitol about 3 p.m. Tuesday

The importance of this pope's visit to the U.S. was underscored by the fact that President Bush went out to the airport to greet the pope personally as he got off his aircraft. His flight from Italy touched down just before 3 p.m. Chicago time. Shepherd 1, as they call that aircraft, is an Italian jet liner chartered specifically for the pope.

Quite a crowd showed up at Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday afternoon. Then Pope Benedict himself walked down the stairs from the plane wearing the trademark white garb. He was greeted at the bottom of the stairs by President Bush and the first lady, which is very unusual, for a president to greet an official at the airport. Their daughter, Jenna, was also there as well.

And then Chicago's Francis Cardinal George was next in line. He shook the pope's hand and bent down and kissed his ring. Cardinal George is the official host as the president of the U.S. College of Cardinals, so he will be spending quite a bit of time with Pope Benedict on the six-day journey.

He will be officially welcomed in Washington Wednesday morning. About 10,000 people have received tickets to attend the event at the White House on the pope birthday.

And the pope and president will have private time in the White House Tuesday.

On his flight here, the pope made his most extensive comments so far regarding the sexual abuse scandal in the United States.

"It is great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen. If I read the history of these victims, it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible. The mission is healing, to give the love of God to his children. We will do all possible that this cannot happen in the future. We'll absolutely exclude pedophiles from the ministry," Pope Benedict said.

Those are the most extensive and certainly the most candid remarks we have heard from the pope regarding the sexual abuse crisis in the United States since he has been pope for the past three years. Some believe that what happens over the next six days or so could determine the future direction of the Catholic Church in America.

Lofty words will not protect children, only decisive action will. "We're looking for strong, decisive action from the Holy Father when he arrives in the United States," said Barbara Blaine, Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

Nursing student Melanie Singh holds a coveted ticket to Wednesday's White House birthday celebration for the pope's 81st.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime event. How often do you get to say I saw any pope? It is definitely a huge honor and something I am proud to be able to tell my family," she said.

"I would think that our Holy Father is going to say something about the contribution that Catholics have made and continue to make in the country and the good things the good church is involved in, in this country," said Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Washington D.C.

At the same time, the Catholic Church in America is at a crossroads. There is tremendous growth in Latino parishes. Women have done a lot but they cannot become priests. And there is the damage done by the sexual abuse crisis.

"I think that the pope really needs to reassure the church in America about its future," said James Brennan, provost, Catholic Univ. of America

Brennan is a former Chicagoan and dean at Loyola University.

"I think the pope is coming with his hope and vision to say, 'Let's move on and look at the future of the church and the excitement of the message that the gospel brings to our every day lives," he said.

There will undoubtedly be comparisons between this pope and the late John Paul II, but Pope Benedict is hoping he can leave his own personal mark on the United States.

Secret Service agents prepared for Pope Benedict XVI's trip along the streets of Washington D.C. The bullet-proof Popemobile was used in an exercise.

The Pope will use the vehicle two times Wednesday. The first trip will be Wednesday morning, when the pontiff leaves the White House. President Bush and the First Lady will welcome the pope on the South Lawn.
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