Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds poured onto the grounds surrounding the White House on the picture perfect Wednesday morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis in one of the first public events of his U.S. visit.
After a calm morning watching the White House welcome ceremony on a nearby jumbotron, the crowd leapt to its feet when it realized Francis was headed that way in his "popemobile ." Barely visible through a sea of hands waving and and smartphones raised with cameras trained on the pontiff, he glided down the street, waving to cheering onlookers. Thousands from around the country and the world lined the parade route that wrapped along the southern edges of the White House grounds. Four security checkpoints opened around 4 a.m., and onlookers went through bag checks and metal detectors to enter the area. Attendees lined the entire route, which stretched down 17th Street, over Constitution Avenue, and up 15th Street.
A number of law enforcement agencies were on the scene, including the Secret Service, Park Police, Customs and Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security agents, Metropolitan Police, and even Transportation Security Administration agents, who conducted the security screenings.
Before the parade, Francis addressed the country at a welcome ceremony at the White House, and the crowd lining the route listened calmly and attentively. Francis' remarks about immigration and climate change drew applause from the crowd. Some also applauded when the pope mentioned he would be traveling to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families "to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and families."
Julia Haag, 52, a Wisconsin native who moved to D.C. a few months ago, said she hoped Francis would bring his message about the importance of families to lawmakers for the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress Thursday.
“Focus on building and strengthening our families because people cannot be controlled as easily," Haag said. "And you don’t have the radical individualism and selfishness when you have the family atmosphere intact."
Haag was wearing a blue T-shirt with "pro-life" written in large white letters on the front, and passed out prayer books before the parade. She described herself as a "traditional Catholic," and disputed the notion that some traditional Catholics are wary about the pontiff's policies.
She said her Wisconsin bishop informed her fellow parishioners who were concerned about the new pope that, “God has placed him there and until there is an actual schism or he goes completely against the Church in some way, we need to support him."
She also pointed to Francis' blessing of all pregnant women and unborn children while he was in Santiago, Cuba, Tuesday. “When I heard him yesterday, I just fell in love with him all over again,” she said.
The admiration and excitement surrounding the pope was palpable on the sunny Wednesday morning. After the White House ceremony, onlookers waited for the parade to begin, with some coming prepared with books and blankets, and others curling up on the ground to take a quick nap. A few vendors who passed through security sold buttons, T-shirts and flags.
Near the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue, when it became clear that the pope had started his journey in his popemobile, the crowd rushed to the edge of the street, which was 20 people deep in some places, craning their necks to try and see him. Exclamations of, "There he is!" and, "I can see him!" came first from the children hoisted on their parents' shoulders.
As the pope rode along, onlookers held up phones to try to take pictures, and others ran alongside the crowd, trying to catch glimpses as he turned the corner up 15th Street.
The parade was the only event in D.C. that did not require a ticket to attend. Though some attendees appeared to come to the parade straight from work, sporting office ID badges on their hips, others came in from other areas of the country to attend.
"I think it’s an historic event, to participate somehow by being here," said Carlos, 75, who drove with his wife, Lea, both Catholic, to D.C. from North Carolina. They declined to give their last names. "What we think is, for us, the right thing to do, which is to be close. We are not sure how we are going to see him or not, but at least we are close.”
Carlos was sporting a blue and white baseball hat with "Argentina" on the brim, signifying his and Lea's country of origin. Carlos said Francis' Argentine roots were a point of pride for their country, and, in his opinion, a more important symbol than soccer star Lionel Messi (though there were a few Messi jerseys in the crowd).
Asked what he hoped Pope Francis would tell Congress Thursday, Carlos brought up one of the most divisive issues facing lawmakers: immigration.
"From being from other countries, we see how some people from Central America, Mexico, are suffering and are afraid or scared because we don’t know what’s going to happen," Carlos said. "I hope he can open the mind of those that are not agreeable with immigration issues. ... So if that can be accomplished, I think that will be the beginning of a possibility for a solution.”
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