At dusk on a midweek evening, in the first week of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, the faithful gathered to pray. They arrived in luxury sedans, well-worn imports and minivans and walked from the parking lot under a blood orange sky to the entrance of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls.
About 30 parishioners were in the wooden pews when their pastor, the Rev. Franklyn McAfee, began the Eucharistic Holy Hour service.
McAfee led his flock in song and prayer, some of it in Latin. There was "a prayer for the reparation for abortion" and an appeal for God's mercy for clergy and lay people "who disregard and disobey Your vicar, the Pope."
Across the river in upper Northwest Washington, latecomers hurried up stone steps at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Nearly 30 people filed into the nave, called to mind their sins and asked Jesus for forgiveness as the Rev. Percival L. D'Silva, an associate pastor, celebrated an early-evening Thursday Mass in English.
In his homily, D'Silva praised the new pope and reassured his communicants -- who are part of what is considered a diverse parish in a mostly liberal neighborhood -- that they would be in the able hands of a brilliant theologian. Critics of Benedict had not given him a chance, D'Silva said.
The newly elected prince of the church was foremost in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of area Catholics. His election highlighted for many their tight bonds to the church and reminded others of their differences.
But many Catholics said last week that above all, their faith sustains them and that is true regardless of who is pope.
"Being a Catholic is a lot more than some of the issues in which I may disagree with the hierarchy," said John Monahan, a lawyer for a nonprofit group and a member of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
No matter what place individuals occupy on the wide spectrum of beliefs, practices and attitudes within the church, devout Catholics say they have faith that the pope will be as accessible as John Paul II was. New popes, like new presidents, have honeymoon periods, and many who disagree with Benedict's past positions say they hope he will embrace a variety of spiritual views.
Catholics interviewed last week revealed a range of expectations. Some said they were confident the pope will reaffirm his commitment to more traditional or conservative practices. Others said his actions as pope will be much different from the positions he took as a cardinal.
"He was the doctrinal cop, and that was the job he was given," said Gene Betit, a deacon and social justice minister at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, which is known for its progressive congregation. "Most of us, when given a job, we try to do it. I am pretty sure he will turn out to be more compassionate than people think."
There is more to being Catholic than agreeing with church doctrine, Monahan said.
"Catholics do have a lot of different opinions on which way the church should go on a range of important issues," he said. "The challenge will be to see where the church goes in the next several years. It's too early to tell where this pope is going to go."
At St. Catherine's, those gathered for the service last week talked of the pope in very personal terms. They spoke of how their faith and the faith of the College of Cardinals, which elected Benedict, are guided by the Holy Spirit.