In the pre-dawn shadows along Constitution Avenue, around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, five people wearing "Repent or Perish" T-shirts marched westward toward the security checkpoint at 14th Street NW. They had Bibles and tall black signs with white lettering. One said "THE POPE IS an ANTICHRIST," which was enough to incite the crowd of 1,000 people waiting for the checkpoint to open.
"Let's go, Fran-cis!" chanted Arlington, Virginia, resident Michael Jackson, 25, wearing a University of Notre Dame cap and polo shirt. Others joined him, breaking out their guitars and then singing "Francisco! Francisco!"
Past the checkpoint, through an obstacle course of TSA agents and border patrolmen and homeland security officers, there was tranquility on the Ellipse for the pope's only public event in the District. Venus was a brilliant white pinpoint in the navy sky. The early birds claimed spots at the barricades along 15th Street, Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, and then promptly blanketed themselves against the morning chill to get some sleep.
Six girls from Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis found a primo spot on Constitution aligned with the Washington Monument. They left Indiana after school Tuesday, in a Suburban driven by their director of campus ministry, and arrived in the District at 3:10 a.m. They all wore hot-pink long-sleeved shirts with "Witness is what counts" inked on the backs.
"The daily reading today is Luke Chapter 9, Verse 1 through 6," said Carol Wagner, the campus ministry director. "It's fitting: 'Take nothing for the journey.' " They'd left their sleeping bags and most of their snacks in the car, mindful of security restrictions.
The rising sun shot a golden beam down Constitution, filtering through the flags of the District of Columbia, the United States and Vatican City. Helicopters hovered. The faithful streamed in calmly, lounging on the grassy expanse of the Ellipse, reclining against the metal bars of the barricades. Spectators came from Albania and North Carolina. There were non-Catholics and atheists. People wore national flags as capes: Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina. It felt like a party for the World Cup, minus the alcohol.
Damian Descalzo, 37-year-old lawyer draped in his country's sky-blue and white flag, flew from Buenos Aires to see his fellow countryman.
"I've read all his books and heard his messages," said Descalzo, who met Francis in 1998, when he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and has since followed him from Rome to Paraguay and now Washington. "I don't like the word 'fan,' but I am a follower. And, a bit pretentiously, maybe a disciple."
The mood was cheery and leisurely.
There were plenty of bathrooms and plenty of space.
Children played stickball using water bottles as bases. Francis bobbleheads went for $15, or $10 if you were nice. Reading material on hand: US Weekly, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," a textbook titled "Linear Algebra." A 10-year-old boy lost a green marble rosary in the grass and his mother said, "Oh, man, say a prayer to Saint Anthony."
Overheard: "Can I call you back later? I'm in the middle of seeing the pope right now."
At 9:20 a.m., on the packed South Lawn across the empty core of the Ellipse, the pope delivered his White House speech, which was broadcast live on giant flat-screen televisions for the parade spectators. Thousands of people hushed up, as if in church.
"As the son of an immigrant," the pope began to say, but the rest of his sentence was drowned out by cheers along the parade route.
"I believe he was chosen by God to help us with la reforma," said Rosa Rivera, a 48-year-old cook, referring to immigration reform. She had walked from Washington's Columbia Heights neighborhood early Wednesday with her congregation from Shrine of the Sacred Heart.
Yawns began to ripple up 15th Street in the 10 o'clock hour, but then at 11:20 a.m., a cry from under a tree: "He's out, guys!"
Evelyn Lancaster, 53, of Sterling, Virginia, was live-streaming the start of the parade on her phone on 15th Street, near the end of the parade route. "Oh my God he's right there!" the Virginia woman said, pointing to the tiny pixelated pope in her hand, though he was actually a quarter-mile behind her. "Guys, get ready!"
Francis was moving south on 17th at a good clip, preceded by a phalanx of motorcycles. Spectators took off on foot, running along with him as far as the geometry of barricades would allow. The pope approached Constitution, and Arlington residents Joanne and Harold Wilson, both blind, felt the crowd erupt as he moved past them at the corner.
"He's waving this way!" their fellow spectators shouted, but they could already feel his presence in their ears and hearts.
Halfway down Constitution, Maria Nunez of Alexandria, Virginia, teetered on top of a barricade. Her Mexican father had immigrated to the United States, where she was born, and she fell in love with Francis because of his compassion for the meek, the disenfranchised. As Francis passed, she raised a small Mexican flag and began to tremble, the word "papa" on her sign meaning more than just "pope."
The calm, expectant atmosphere of the sidelines turned cranky. Phones and iPads and cameras went up, blocking views. A few babies were passed, via stocky Secret Service agents, for a pontifical kiss, which they received. The crowd surged, sprinted, elbowed. From Constitution, the popemobile turned left onto 15th Street for the final leg of his brief jaunt.
"There he is!"
The roar preceded him. Sunlight was now cutting directly down 15th, making Francis a vision in white. He waved his right hand, and with his left he gripped the white railing of his popemobile.
There were rumors of his sciatica acting up, though his big grin argued otherwise. He coasted along the broad facade of the Commerce Department, with its engravings from Ben Franklin and George Washington:
"Commerce among nations should be fair and equitable."
"Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."
The faithful ran after him until they hit fences. When the motorcade turned into the White House grounds, the pope sat down in his vehicle and bounced when it went over a bump.
Spectators bent their heads, not in reflection but in concentration. They scrutinized the screens of their mobile devices, flicking through their photo galleries, uploading to Facebook, filtering on Instagram. Instead of "I saw him!" they said "I got him!"
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