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A Standing Invitation To See the Pontiff
Anticipation, and Some Antipathy, Line The Popemobile's Short Route to the Shrine

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stood for three hours to see the pope go by. Saw him for 20 seconds, max.

You say: How come? Why?

We say . . . well, who can really say? Because aren't kooky, devoted people the best? Jammed up here together behind two rows of barricades, in a mess of a few thousand believers on a perfect Wednesday afternoon on Fourth Street NE? They just seem to have this privileged, sunburned glow. They know something we don't. They sing "alleluia" over and over until we think our heads will burst. It's not just about popes. You see the same thing when the "bleacher creatures" wait for hours to watch movie stars walk the red carpet on Oscar night. Who can account for fervor? Who wants a T-shirt?

The choice is this: Wait deep inside some press room at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to Catholic University for three hours, twiddling and texting with our thumbs, until the pope arrives for Vespers in the Crypt and then gives a formal address to 350 American bishops. Wait all that time only to see the address on closed-circuit TV? (Sounds dreadful. Anyhow, we think we might have seen Vespers in the Crypt already, when they opened for the Damned at the 9:30 club years ago.)

The other choice: Outside! So pretty! Wait for him to make the two-minute Popemobile trip at 5:20 p.m. from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters all the way to the shrine -- two blocks? Three?

Watch him pass his happy throngs. With the tambourines and the bongo drums and the big banners. There's something elementally religious about the rhythms, creating a cacophony, and it all sounds like Hare Krishna. People are wearing their souvenir sweat shirts from antiabortion marches years ago. It's about priests in black socks and Birkenstocks and fanny packs. The youth-groupers have brought pizza.

Making our way past exhausted Latina nuns sprawled out on the grass. Past the women who have taped Pope Benedict XVI's picture to empty wrapping-paper tubes, which they wave around like flags. Pushing on, until we find a space of our own against the barricade. The "alleluias" go on and on. This is much better than vespers.

The gay Dignity group has unfurled its banners (talk about optimists), and so have all visiting chapters of something called the Neocatechumenal Way. The disabled have a special reserved spot outside the Theological College, and they're holding purple flowers. We all stand around chatting about popes -- this pope, the last pope. The woman behind us says she saw Pope John Paul II when his helicopter landed near the Tidal Basin in 1979. She saw another pope when she was 18, on a trip to Europe. (You know, she asks, where he comes and stands by his big window?) She couldn't tell you which pope that was. She won't tell us who she is. She won't let us do the math to figure out who was pope when she was 18. Why should it matter?

The meanies show up. They've got giant banners and megaphones and "King of the Hill" wardrobes. Their banners say "Your Priest Is Lying! Where in the Bible [Is]: Penance? Praying to Mary? Purgatory? Rosary?" The neocatechumenal bands crank it up a notch and move in on the haters and sing louder alleluias. It's a battle of the bands. "You worship little statues," screeches a voice over a megaphone. "Do you really think Mary walked around with a little halo over her head?"

We wait for another 90 minutes like this. Then the moment, the rumble of motorcycle engines. It's the big parade. All security, and one float.

Here he comes.

There he goes.

"Oh, heck," says the woman behind us.

What happens in the wake of a pope going by in the 21st century: Everyone is immediately looking down at digital cameras, to see if they got it, as if trying to verify that it actually happened. ("I didn't get it," she says.)

"You'll all burn in hell," one of the men with the megaphones screams at us still, as we push and push and push our way toward the shrine and the Metro stop. "Jesus is coming back and you are going to be burned up in your wicked idolatry."

The crowd is all whatevs, basking in what just happened. (What just happened?)

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