Multitudes Gather for a Glimpse Or, Perhaps, a Touch of the Hand
Thursday, April 17, 2008
They reached the Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW early yesterday, a boy and his father hoping to see, touch or even trade a word with Pope Benedict XVI.
This was Paul Henkels's birthday gift to his stepson, James, who turned 11 on the day that Benedict turned 81. Henkels spared no expense to achieve their papal moment, spending $2,000 to fly himself and his son from Vancouver, Wash.
At 10:08 a.m., Benedict strode through the embassy's double doors, and the small crowd of youngsters and adults inched forward. Henkels pushed his son toward the police barricade, where the boy and the pope clasped hands.
The exchange lasted all of a few seconds, but the Henkelses said it was more than enough to justify the flight across the country.
"Cool," James Henkels said, while his father beamed.
The centerpiece of Benedict's second day in the United States was his trip to see President Bush at the White House, a 90-minute visit that brimmed with Washington-style pomp and pageantry.
A 21-gun salute greeted the pontiff, along with a crowd of 13,500 guests assembled on the South Lawn. Later in the day, Benedict traveled to Catholic University, which handed out 8,000 tickets to watch him arrive for a prayer service with 360 bishops and cardinals at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
Yet the day was also marked by far less formal, more intimate moments between Benedict and ordinary people, thousands of whom lined Washington's streets, hoisting yellow and white papal flags as the pontiff smiled and waved from the back of his white Mercedes Popemobile.
There were clusters of spectators along parts of Massachusetts Avenue and thick crowds, 15 to 20 deep in spots, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Office workers watched from windows, and other people perched on park benches and scaffolding for better views. Many showed up long before noon, the hour when Benedict was scheduled to begin his three-mile procession from the White House back to the embassy.
"Hallelujah!" shouted members of a Texas church who stood at 18th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW with an arsenal of spiritual tools: guitars, drums, tambourines, Bibles and a seven-foot-tall cross.
The 150 congregants, all of them Hispanic, had flown in from Houston early Wednesday. After sleeping for a couple of hours on the gymnasium floor at a Catholic school, they headed out to Pennsylvania Avenue to claim their spots.
Even without a papal glance or a wave, they said, the sense of adventure made the long trip worthwhile. "When you go on a pilgrimage, you don't know what could happen," said Paul Merino, 50. "Anything's possible."