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Multitudes Gather for a Glimpse Or, Perhaps, a Touch of the Hand

By Paul Schwartzman and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
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."

Already, he said, he and his wife had experienced a miracle, obtaining from a church mentor two hard-to-get tickets to today's papal mass.

"Why did we receive this?" Merino asked. "It's a blessing from God."

A friend, Oscar Zavala, laughed as he listened.

"It's because you're a sinner," Zavala said. "The ones who need are the ones who receive."

A few yards away, Nancy Lim, a World Bank budget officer, stood among a cross section of Washingtonians: uniformed janitors, accountants and lawyers in dark suits and college students in George Washington University sweat shirts.

Lim said she felt compelled by history to leave her desk and witness the moment.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see the pope," she said, adding that even a blurred glimpse would make her "feel closer to him and the Church."

Not everyone who greeted the pope was an admirer. Outside Catholic University, where Benedict traveled late in the afternoon, a half-dozen clusters of protesters gathered.

One protester held a sign chiding the Vatican over the child sexual abuse scandals. Another stood in front of a statue of Mary cradling baby Jesus. He carried a black leather-bound Bible and chanted into a megaphone: "It's idolatry! It's idolatry!"

Kate Braggs, 23, who lives in the District, was part of a contingent with a sign that read, "Equal Rites for All" and "Women: The Answer to the Priest Shortage."

"We want to send the pope a message that women and gays and lesbians deserve equal rights," Braggs said.

The dissent was dwarfed by expressions of support inside the university.

The Rev. Kevin Kelly, a priest from New Brunswick, N.J., said that catching sight of the pope was only part of the reason he drove to Catholic University, where hundreds waited outside while mariachi bands played. "It's a public witness to show the country our joy and our desire to come together as a people of faith," he said.

Amy and Joe Kline drove into the city from Boonsboro, Md., before taking Metro and trudging up Massachusetts Avenue to stand outside the Vatican Embassy with their two small children.

A long journey, yes, but the Klines said they saw no other choice.

"It's like, duh, of course, we have to see him," said Amy Kline, 35, who named her 3-year-old son John Paul after Pope John Paul II because he was born soon after the pontiff died.

She had hoped to name her second son Benedict, she said, but her husband put his foot down: One son named after a pope was enough.

"He was worried that he might get teased with that name," she said. "But we love Benedict just as much as we loved John Paul."

Staff writers William Wan and Daniela Deane contributed to this report.

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