HAVANA -- A theme of reconciliation between Cuba and the United States marked Pope Francis' first speech upon his arrival Saturday afternoon in this Communist Island nation.

The first leg of the pope's historic nine-day tour to Cuba and the U.S. began shortly before 4 p.m. Eastern time, when his special Alitalia flight touched down at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport

Francis was greeted by an adoring crowd that cheered as his plane taxied on the tarmac.

Vatican and Cuban flags fluttered and a brass band in uniforms played as Francis emerged, the wind sweeping the white papal cap from his head. He set foot on Cuban soil at 4:05 p.m.

Francis greeted Cuban President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, then accepted flowers and embraces from a group of children.

Castro stood at the pontiff's side as they listened to the Cuban national anthem, punctuated by soldiers firing cannons.

In his address, Castro recalled his "memorable encounter" with the pope at the Vatican in May, and praised the pope's environmental encyclical released in June calling for religious action to combat climate change.

Castro referenced religious freedom in Cuba, saying it was "an essential freedom in our constitution," according to a televised translation of his Spanish-language remarks.

"In the name of this people and this country, I do give you the warmest welcome," he concluded.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America, began his own brief remarks after that, thanking the Cuban government and people in his native Spanish.

After thanking Castro and extending "particular respect and consideration" to the president's brother, former Cuban president Fidel Castro, Francis acknowledged the "indelible path" to Cuba forged by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both visited the island.

"May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba," Francis said, quoting John Paul's remarks upon that pontiff's arrival ceremony to the country in 1998.

Francis then expressed hope for further reconciliation between Cuba and the United States, which has long had an embargo against the Communist country.

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," Francis said.

Going on to quote Jose Marti -- the Cuban revolutionary and titan of Latin American literature, after whom Havana's airport is named -- Francis said: "It is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, 'the system of universal growth' over 'the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.'"

Francis ended his remarks by calling on "political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of all their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."

He added: "The world needs reconciliation."

Francis' visit to Cuba continues with a major outdoor Mass planned for Sunday morning for the Plaza de la Revolucion, where a huge image of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara adorns a nearby government building.

Francis will meet with Castro on Sunday afternoon before departing Monday morning for the city of Holguin and traveling later that day to Santiago.

On Tuesday, he heads to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are to greet him at Andrews Air Force Base. On Wednesday, he meets with the president in the White House, greets the public in a motorcade around the Ellipse and celebrates a Mass canonizing Junipero Serra, an 18th century missionary.

He will address Congress on Thursday morning, marking the first time a pontiff addresses that body. The pope also will visit homeless people at a Catholic church in the capital, then head to New York City, where he will attend evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Francis will deliver a major address at the United Nations General Assembly on Friday morning, followed by visits to Ground Zero and a Catholic grammar school in East Harlem. From there he takes a motorcade through Central Park on his way to Madison Square Garden for a Mass to conclude his visit to the city.

Saturday and Sunday he travels to Philadelphia, where he will give an address on Independence Mall, visit prisoners and cap off his trip with a massive outdoor Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Mass will conclude the weeklong World Meeting of Families, a Catholic conference on family values. At least 1 million people are expected to attend the Mass.

On Tuesday he heads to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are to greet him at Andrews Air Force Base. On Wednesday he meets with the president in the White House, greets the public in a motorcade around the Ellipse and celebrates a Mass canonizing Junipero Serra, an 18th century missionary.

He will address Congress on Thursday morning, visit homeless people at a Catholic church in the capital, and then head to New York, where he will attend evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The pope will deliver a major address at the United Nations General Assembly on Friday morning, followed by visits to Ground Zero and a Catholic grammar school in East Harlem. From there he takes a motorcade through Central Park on his way to Madison Square Garden for a Mass to conclude his visit to the city.

Saturday and Sunday he travels to Philadelphia, where he will give an address on Independence Mall, visit prisoners and cap off his trip with a massive outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Mass will conclude the weeklong World Meeting of Families, a Catholic conference on family values. At least 1 million people are expected to attend the Mass.

With The Associated Press