For Crowd, Miraculous Moments

By Michael E. Ruane, Hamil R. Harris and David Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

The crowd that mobbed Nationals Park to see, or just be near, Pope Benedict XVI yesterday was a joyous, kaleidoscopic tableau of Catholics and non-Catholics from across the country who said they were drawn by faith, hope and a sense of the history of the moment.

"It's a once-in-life experience," said Kevin Schoonmaker of Moline, Ill., who made the trip to Washington with his wife and five children even though they had only two tickets for the Mass. "The grace of being around such an event is well worth it." His wife, Maggie, and daughter Lexi, 13, used the tickets.

Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson was there, bearing palm fronds. "Often times, we get wrapped up in the things that we do," he said, "and it is just great to be out here with other believers."

There were men in suits and women in fancy Sunday hats. But there were also people wearing fleeces and baseball caps and Catholic-school students in plaid skirts and embroidered polos.

There were priests in cassocks of black or habits of brown and white, and nuns in blue and in white.

Luis Henriquez, 37, of Columbia Heights, who came with his daughter, Jennifer, 9, wore a tie with a gold cross imprinted in it. "We want to see the pope," he said. "As Catholics, we believe he's the voice of Christ."

Andrea Diaz, 10, of Gaithersburg wore a pope hat made from gold ribbon, poster board and purple felt. "It took me about an hour and a half" to make it, Andrea said. With the pointed hat sticking up a good 10 inches off her head, she was a child pope with braces.

"It's the first time that I've ever seen the pope," she said, "and it's, like, so close up."

The Rev. E. Gail Anderson Holness, an African Methodist Episcopal minister who is president of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, had a front-row seat. The pope, she said, transcends denomination.

Sister Lawrence Marie Callahan, 70, a nun for 50 years, was there in her blue habit and blue Crocs. A nurse practitioner at Providence Hospital, she works with HIV-positive patients. "We're here to celebrate the Holy Father's being with us, his mission of love and acceptance of all people. . . . We're very grateful, and very proud of our city," she said.

Nearby, a girl carried a small crucifix aloft. Many people carried -- and at least one person wore -- the yellow and white flag of the papacy.

Outside the Navy Yard Metro stop, a man stood with head bowed while a priest blessed him.

Despite gaggles of anti-Catholic protesters and an unpleasant crush when a number of stadium exits were closed after the Mass, the mood was largely jubilant.

The pope "is the holiest guy in the world," said Tommy Castiello of Bethesda, who brought his two daughters to the Mass.

As thousands streamed toward the stadium before the Mass, knots of desperate ticket-seekers formed outside. "Need one miracle," read a small sign held by one man.

Trevor Rodrigues, 43, in town on a work trip from Santa Monica, Calif., held a sign that read: "From Calif. Need 1 Ticket."

When the Mass began, hundreds of people who did not have tickets gathered in the middle of N Street SE, just outside the park's centerfield entrance, to watch the Mass on an electronic screen.

Protesters with signs and bullhorns stationed themselves nearby, shouting so loud that they drowned out some of Benedict's softly spoken homily.

"You have shed the blood of God!" yelled one protester, who declined to give his name.

"Shut up!" someone in the crowd shouted back.

Eventually, mounted policemen surrounded the loudest protesters.

"Look!" Christie Powell yelled from the sidewalk as the gleaming black limousines emerged from the underpass on South Capitol street after the Mass.

"Look at the papal flags!" she screamed to her friends from an "itty-bitty" church in North Little Rock, Ark. "Y'all wave! He's gonna be in one of them!"

And there, visible through the translucent car windows, Benedict indeed was, clad in white.

The pope was gone in a second, vanished in a blur of shiny black and flashing police lights. He hadn't even looked at the people on the sidewalk, bedraggled from the all-night bus ride from Arkansas.

But who cared?

"That was him!" Powell shrieked. "I saw him!"

Months ago, when they were still holding bingos back home to raise money for their trip and trying in vain to snag tickets for the Mass at Nationals Park, Powell vowed to her Youth Ministry: "We are going to see the pope."

And now they had.

"Woohoooo!" somebody yelled.

The pilgrims from Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in North Little Rock had started Wednesday afternoon, spent the night on the road, got lost in the warren of Washington streets and wound up at the refuge of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, about a block from the stadium.

They did not have stadium tickets, although they did have a chance to see the pope at Catholic University later in the day.

They watched the Mass on two TVs set up by Brother Marx Tyree inside the church. After it ended, they spilled out onto South Capitol Street in hopes of catching a glimpse of Benedict as he went by.

They were excited, exhausted and thankful.

"Just knowing he's a block away, that's what's cool," Rachel Powell, 25, Christie's daughter, said as she waited near St. Vincent de Paul. "It's the closest we've ever been to him. I'll take a block any day."

And then he went whizzing by, 100 feet away, and the sound of bells started from the old church, and the weary faithful who had traveled to the sidewalk on South Capitol Street looked like they were in heaven.

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