Pope Francis arrives in US, faces a polarized country

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pope Francis arrived Tuesday on the first visit of his life to the United States, bringing his humble manner and his "church of the poor" to a rich and powerful nation polarized over economic inequality, immigration and equal justice.

According a rare honor to the pontiff, President Barack Obama and his wife and daughters met Francis at the bottom of the stairs on the red-carpeted tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland after the pope's chartered plane touched down from Cuba. Presidents usually make important visitors come to them at the White House.

SEE ALSO: Fired gay teacher invited to White House to welcome pope

Emerging from the plane to boisterous cheers from a crowd of hundreds, the smiling 78-year-old pontiff removed his skullcap in the windy weather and made his way down the steps in his white robes.

He was welcomed by a military honor guard, chanting schoolchildren, politicians, and Roman Catholic clerics in black robes and vivid sashes of scarlet and purple. Joe Biden, the nation's first Catholic vice president, and his wife were among those who greeted him.

Eschewing a limousine, the pope climbed into the back of a modest little Fiat family car and promptly rolled down the windows, enabling the cheering, whooping crowds to see him as his motorcade took him to the Vatican diplomatic mission in Washington, where he will stay while in the nation's capital. The choice of car was in keeping with his simple habits and his stand against consumerism.

The pope's visit to Washington:

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Pope Francis touches down in the USA
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Pope Francis arrives in US, faces a polarized country
Pope Francis talks with President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. The Pope is spending three days in Washington before heading to New York and Philadelphia. This is the Pope's first visit to the United States. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: a Crowd waves to His Holiness Pope Francis on his arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after the pontiff's arrival from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: a Crowd waves to His Holiness Pope Francis on his arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after the pontiff's arrival from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: (AFP OUT) Pope Francis is greeted by U.S. President Barack Obama after the pontiff's arrival from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis arrives to the United States from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as Pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, September 22, 2015, on the start of a 3-day trip to Washington. Pope Francis arrived in the United States on Tuesday for his first-ever visit, a trip that will include a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama and a speech to Congress. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: The red carpet is rolled out for Pope Francis as he arrives to the United States from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Pope Francis disembarks from his airplane upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, September 22, 2015, on the start of a 3-day trip to Washington. Pope Francis arrived in the United States on Tuesday for his first-ever visit, a trip that will include a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama and a speech to Congress. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis walks down the steps of his plane upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, where President Barack Obama was to greet him. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Pope Francis steps off his plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, September 22, 2015, on the start of a 3-day trip to Washington. Pope Francis arrived in the United States on Tuesday for his first-ever visit, a trip that will include a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama and a speech to Congress. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and first lady Michelle Obama arrive to greet the Pope September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as Pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis is greeted by U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other political and Catholic church leaders after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis is escorted by U.S. President Barack Obama, first Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop) Pope Francis (L) is escorted by U.S. President Barack Obama as he greets and other political and Catholic church leaders after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as Pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Clergy brace for the wind as they stand along the red carpet on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, as the plane carrying Pope Francis arrives. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet Pope Francis upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis is escorted by U.S. President Barack Obama (R) after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) greets Pope Francis (R) upon his arrival September 22, 2015 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: (AFP OUT) Pope Francis is greeted by U.S. President Barack Obama,Vice President Joe Biden, Jill Biden and invited guests after the pontiff's arrival from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as Pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis is greeted by U.S. President Barack Obama (R), along with first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other political and Catholic church leaders after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis upon his arrival on September 22, 2015 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis, accompanied by President Barack Obama, and others, is greeted upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Pope Francis departs in a Fiat after arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: Pope Francis waves from the back of his Fiat after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pope. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - SEPTEMBER 22: (AFP OUT) Pope Francis departs in a Fiat after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as Pope. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
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During his six-day, three-city visit to the U.S., the pope will meet with the president on Wednesday, address Congress on Thursday, speak at the United Nations in New York on Friday and take part in a Vatican-sponsored conference on the family in Philadelphia over the weekend.

The Argentine known as the "slum pope" for ministering to the downtrodden in his native Buenos Aires is expected to urge America to take better care of the environment and the poor and return to its founding ideals of religious liberty and open arms toward immigrants.

During the flight, Francis defended himself against conservative criticism of his economic views. He told reporters on the plane that some explanations of his writings may have given the impression he is "a little bit more left-leaning."

But he said such explanations are wrong and added: "I am certain that I have never said anything beyond what is in the social doctrine of the church." Joking about doubts in some quarters over whether he is truly Catholic, he said, "If I have to recite the Creed, I'm ready."

He is the fourth pope ever to visit the United States.

Francis' enormous popularity, propensity for wading into crowds and insistence on using an open-sided Jeep rather than a bulletproof popemobile have complicated things for U.S. law enforcement, which has mounted one of the biggest security operations in American history to keep him safe.

The measures are unprecedented for a papal trip and could make it nearly impossible for many ordinary Americans to get anywhere close to Francis. For anyone hoping to get across town when the pope is around, good luck.

The pope's visit to Cuba:

59 PHOTOS
Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba - 9/20
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Pope Francis arrives in US, faces a polarized country
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ACOSTA (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Cubans wait for catch a glimpse of Pope Francis as he arrives at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. AFP PHOTO / Rodrigo ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Cubans gather at Revolution Square in Havana for a mass with Pope Francis, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman is carried away on a stretcher by Red Cross workers after she fainted during a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A religious man with a Mexican flag waits for the arrival of Pope Francis at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Faithful attend Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Cuban President Raul Castro (C) speaks with other authorities and their relatives as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives for Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Faithful wait for the arrival of Pope Francis for a Mass in Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. The photo of the pope reads in Spanish: "Welcome!" (AP Photo/Enric Marti)
Pope Francis kisses a girl as he arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
People cheer as Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (L) gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) walks to the altar arrives to give mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (L) gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (C) gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ACOSTA (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)
A statue of Jesus stands in Revolution Square, where a statue of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevera decorates a nearby government building in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, as Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (Tony Gentile/POOL via AP)
Pope Francis walks to the altar as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (Tony Gentile/POOL via AP)
A chorus sings as Pope Francis arrives for Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis is helped to the altar as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, where a sculpture of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara decorates a nearby government building. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (Tony Gentile/POOL via AP)
A woman prays during a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
People attend the first mass of Pope Francis on his visit to Cuba, at Havana's Revolution Square on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (2-L) gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ACOSTA (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)
People gather at Revolution Square for Pope Francis's mass on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. Across from the square is a portrait of revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
General view of Havana's Revolution Square as Pope Francis gives the first mass of his visit to Cuba, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (R) wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Revolution Square in Havana on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis will give mass on Revolution Square, the biggest event of his trip to Cuba, with nearly a million people expected to attend. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
People wait for the start of the mass to be officiated by Pope Francis at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Religious men and faithfuls attend Pope Francis' mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A religious woman waits for the start of the mass to be officiated by Pope Francis at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
People cheer as Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana to give mass on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at Revolution Square in Havana to give mass on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gives mass at Revolution Square in Havana, on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. The pontiff's eight-day tour will also take him to the United States. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A soldier stands guard as people gather at Revolution Square for Pope Francis's mass on September 20, 2015. Pope Francis greeted massive crowds of fans and Catholic faithful Sunday as he arrived in his popemobile to give mass on Havana's iconic Revolution Square, the highlight of his trip to Cuba. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman shades herself from the sun at the end of Mass, celebrated by Pope Francis in Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis urged Cubans to care for one another, and not judge each other, as he opened his visit to the country amid great hopes that the key role he played in bringing about detente with the U.S. will result in changes on the island. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
A priest gives Holy Communion to faithful during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
A nun holds an Argentine flag during Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, who's from Argentina, in Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, where a sculpture of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara decorates a government building. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Enric Marti)
Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, right, stands behind Pope Francis in the popemobile as they arrive for Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. During Mass Sunday, Ortega thanked the pope for his work promoting detente between Havana and Washington and called for reconciliation between Cubans living on the island and elsewhere. Ortega was among many priests sent to military-run agricultural camps in the 1960s after Fidel Castro declared Cuba to be socialist and accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple him. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate Via AP)
A man looks out over Revolution Square as Pope Francis celebrates Mass in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, where sculptures of revolutionary heroes Ernesto "Che" Guevara, left, and Camilo Cienfuegos decorate government buildings. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Photographers aim their cameras at Pope Francis as he celebrates Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, where a sculpture of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a Cuban flag decorate government buildings. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
People attend Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: People leave after Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: People look on as Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: People look on as Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: People look on as Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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For all the attention likely to be paid to Francis' speeches, including the first address from a pope to Congress, his more personal gestures - visiting with immigrants, prisoners and the homeless - could yield some of the most memorable images of the trip.

"What the pope does in the United States will be more important than what he says," said Mat Schmalz, a religious studies professor at Holy Cross college in Worcester, Massachusetts. "There are a lot of things he will say about capitalism and about wealth inequality, but many Americans and politicians have already made up their minds on these issues. What I would look for is a particular gesture, an unscripted act, that will move people."

In Cuba, Francis basked in the adulation of Cubans grateful to him for brokering the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the communist island.

On the plane, though, he told reporters he will not use his speech to Congress to call specifically for the U.S. to lift the Cold War-era trade embargo against Cuba.

He arrives at a moment of bitter infighting across the country over gay rights, immigration, abortion and race relations - issues that are always simmering in the U.S. but have boiled over in the heat of a presidential campaign.

Capitol Hill is consumed by disputes over abortion and federal funding for Planned Parenthood after hidden-camera videos showed its officials talking about the organization's practice of sending tissue from aborted fetuses to medical researchers. While Francis has staunchly upheld church teaching against abortion, he has recently allowed ordinary priests, and not just bishops, to absolve women of the sin.

Francis' visit comes three months after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, putting U.S. bishops on the defensive and sharply dividing Americans over how much they should accommodate religious objectors. The pope has strongly upheld church teaching against same-sex marriage but adopted a welcoming tone toward gays themselves, saying, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about a supposedly gay priest.

Americans are also wrestling anew with issues of racism. A series of deaths in recent years of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement has intensified debate over the American criminal justice system. Francis will see that system up close when he meets with inmates at a Pennsylvania prison.

U.S. bishops, meanwhile, expect Francis will issue a strong call for immigration reform, a subject that has heated up with hardline anti-immigrant rhetoric from some of the Republican presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, will be sending a powerful message on that front by delivering the vast majority of his speeches in his native Spanish.

"Our presidential candidates have been using immigrants as a wedge issue," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said. "It's our hope that the visit of Pope Francis will change this narrative."

Francis' most eagerly watched speech will be his address to Congress. Republicans and many conservative Catholics have bristled at his indictment of the excesses of capitalism that he says impoverish people and risk turning the Earth into an "immense pile of filth." Many conservatives have likewise rejected his call for urgent action against global warming.

Nevertheless, Francis enjoys popularity ratings in the U.S. that would be the envy of any world leader. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week found 63 percent of Catholics have a favorable view of him, and nearly 8 in 10 approve the direction he is taking the church.

Just how far Francis presses his agenda in Washington is the big question.

Paul Vallely, author of "Pope Francis, The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism," predicted both "warmth" and "some finger-wagging" from the pope.

"He won't necessarily confront people head-on," Vallely said, "but he'll change the priorities."

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AP reporter Erica Werner contributed from Washington.

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