The pope arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport, 23 kilometres north of the capital, where he was welcomed by newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
A traditional cultural troupe beating drums also greeted him before the armed forces accorded a guard of honour and 21-gun salute.
The pope said he was praying for peace and reconciliation in the country five years after the end of its 26-year civil war.
“I am convinced that various religious traditions have a role to play in reconciliation. All must be free to express their views. They must be prepared to accept one another and legitimate diversities,” the pope said.
Thousands of well-wishers lined the parade route holding flags of the Catholic Church and the papal flag as the pope rode through predominantly Catholic areas to reach the capital.
“I have decided to close my factory and allow the workers to line up on the streets to have a glimpse of the pope as he drives through our area,” Jude Perera said.
About 23,000 policemen backed by commandos were deployed overnight to ensure security and control crowds.
The main event of Francis’ three-day stay in Sri Lanka will be an open-air Mass on Wednesday expected to draw 500,000 people.
Devotees have been requested to assemble at the venue from the previous evening and remain overnight.
The pontiff is planning to recognize Sri Lanka’s first Catholic saint, Joseph Vaz. Born in Goa, India, in 1651, Vaz spent most of his life as a missionary in Sri Lanka, where he died in 1711.
Francis is also slated to celebrate a Mass in Madhu, 320 kilometres north of the capital, which was affected by fighting between Tamil rebels and government troops during the long civil war.
Later Tuesday, the pope is scheduled to meet with representatives of other religions.
Catholics account for about 7 per cent of the 20 million people in the predominantly Buddhist country. There are also Hindu and Muslim minorities.
On Thursday, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics is to leave for the Philippines, where he is due to stay until Monday.
The January 12-19 trip is Francis’ seventh international sojourn and his second into Asia, after a visit to South Korea in August. (DPA)