The parade for Pope Francis was a gorgeous and fleeting 12 minutes, a gallant zip around the Ellipse under heavenly skies, but for the first spectators, it began seven hours earlier in the dark, with some hellfire along Constitution Avenue.
Five people wearing “Repent or Perish” T-shirts marched westward toward the security checkpoint at 14th Street NW. One of the black signs they carried said, “THE POPE IS an ANTICHRIST,” which was enough to incite the crowd of 1,000 people waiting at 4:30 a.m. for the checkpoint to open.
“Let’s go, Fran-cis!” chanted Arlington resident Michael Jackson, 25, wearing a University of Notre Dame cap and polo shirt. Others joined him, breaking out guitars and singing, “Francisco! Francisco!”
Past the checkpoint, through an obstacle course of homeland security officers, there was tranquility on the Ellipse. The parade was the pope’s only public event in the District — a city stratified by bollards, secure areas and ticketed events — and the multitudes knew this was their surest bet to see him in real life on his first-ever visit to the United States.
His presence, and even the promise of his presence, electrified a city that confers such vox-populi enthusiasm only on the president, at inaugurations.
Tens of thousands of disciples, plus pockets of protesters, zigzagged around the capital Wednesday, gambling on timing and location, not content to see the pope on CNN or social media. Across town, hoping for a glimpse, they lined streets, jammed intersections and waited patiently for hours to pass through metal detectors. Shortly before 9 a.m., lucky children outside the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican embassy, took photos with Francis before he left for the White House. He rubbed their heads, hugged them, kissed their foreheads. Around noon, as the pope was due to arrive at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, activists supporting the ordination of women were arrested while lying on the ground at the nearby intersection of M Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.
Later, near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a 66-year-old woman with a displaced kneecap and herniated disk rose from her wheelchair, inspired by the proximity of the pontiff, as the motorcade passed at Fourth Street and Michigan Avenue NE.
“I got up,” said Catherine Alexander of Highland Park, Ill. “It must have been the spirit.”
The pope’s Mass at the nation’s largest Catholic church was broadcast live, but thousands of the unticketed left their homes to watch giant screens with strangers on the shrine’s sprawling grounds.
For the parade, the early birds claimed spots at the barricades along the U shape made by 17th Street, Constitution Avenue and 15th Street, and then promptly blanketed themselves against the morning chill to get some sleep.
Six girls from Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis found a prime spot on Constitution aligned with the Washington Monument. They left Indiana after school Tuesday, in a Suburban driven by their director of campus ministry, and arrived in the District at 3:10 a.m. They all wore hot-pink long-sleeved shirts with “Witness is what counts” inked on the backs.
“The daily reading today is Luke, Chapter 9, Verse 1 through 6,” said Carol Wagner, the campus ministry director. “It’s fitting: ‘Take nothing for the journey.’ ” They’d left their sleeping bags and most of their snacks in the car, obedient to security restrictions.
Just after 7 a.m., the rising sun lit the flags of the District, the United States and Vatican City, mounted together on each lamppost along the route. Helicopters hovered. The faithful streamed in calmly from every direction, a predominantly Latino crowd come to see the first Latin American pope. There were people from Albania and North Carolina. There were non-Catholics and atheists. National flags were worn as capes: Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina. It felt like a World Cup party, minus the alcohol.
Damian Descalzo, a 37-year-old lawyer draped in his country’s sky-blue and white flag, flew from Buenos Aires to see his fellow countryman.
“I’ve read all his books and heard his messages,” said Descalzo, who met Francis in 1998, when he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and has since followed him around the world, and now to Washington. “I don’t like the word ‘fan,’ but I am a follower. And, a bit pretentiously, maybe a disciple.”
The mood was cheery and leisurely. There were plenty of bathrooms, plenty of space, plenty of sunshine. Children played stickball using water bottles as bases. Francis bobbleheads went for $15, or $10 if you were nice. Reading material on hand: US Weekly, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” a textbook titled “Linear Algebra.” A 10-year-old boy lost a green marble rosary in the grass, and his mother said, “Oh, man, say a prayer to Saint Anthony.”
Overheard: “Can I call you back later? I’m in the middle of seeing the pope right now.”
At 9:20 a.m., on the packed South Lawn, the pope delivered his White House remarks, broadcast across the Ellipse, and thousands of people hushed up, as if in church.
“As the son of an immigrant,” the pope began to say, but the rest of his sentence was drowned out by cheers.
“I believe he was chosen by God to help us with la reforma,” said Rosa Rivera, a 48-year-old cook, referring to immigration reform. She had walked down from Columbia Heights early Wednesday morning with her congregation from Shrine of the Sacred Heart.
In the 10 o’clock hour, yawns began to ripple up 15th Street. Each side of Constitution tried to chant louder than the other.
“¡Sí se puede!” the south side shouted.
“They’re singing like it’s a soccer game,” someone grumbled on the north side. “It’s not a soccer game.”
Then, at 11:20 a.m., a cry from under a tree on 15th Street: “He’s out, guys!”
Evelyn Lancaster, 53, of Sterling, Va., was live-streaming the start of the parade on her phone near the end of the route. “Oh, my God, he’s right there!” she said, pointing to the tiny pixelated pope in her hand, though he was actually a quarter-mile behind her. “Guys, get ready!”
Francis was moving south on 17th at a good clip, preceded by a phalanx of motorcycles. He grinned broadly, gripping a bar on his modified Jeep Wrangler with one hand while giving blessings and thumbs up with the other. A few babies were passed over the barricades, via stocky Secret Service agents, for a pontifical kiss. The motorcade approached Constitution, and Arlington residents Joanne and Harold Wilson, both blind, felt the crowd erupt as the pope moved past them at the corner.
“He’s waving this way!” their fellow spectators shouted, but they could already feel his presence in their ears and hearts.
A young girl got past the barricades and walked onto Constitution. Five-year-old Sophie Cruz was carrying a yellow T-shirt and a crayon drawing of the pope holding hands with five children of different ethnicities. Security intercepted her and began to lead her back to her group, from the Los Angeles church Our Lady Queen of Angels. They held a banner that said, “Pope Francis please help us legalize our parents.”
Then the pope beckoned, as if to say, “Come, come.”
An agent scooped up Sophie and raised her into the arms of the pope. The crowd jumped and cheered. Sophie wrapped her arm around the Holy Father’s neck and left him with the T-shirt and the letter, an action coordinated to keep pressing the Vatican to support immigration reform.
Farther down the route, the calm, expectant atmosphere of the sidelines turned cranky. Phones and iPads and cameras went up, blocking views. The crowd surged, sprinted, elbowed. From Constitution, the popemobile turned left onto 15th Street for the final leg of his brief jaunt.
“There he is!”
The roar preceded him.
The faithful ran after him until they hit fences. When the motorcade turned onto the White House grounds, the pope sat down in his vehicle and bounced when it went over a bump.
Spectators bent their heads, not in reflection but in concentration. They scrutinized the screens of their mobile devices, flicking through their photo galleries, uploading to Facebook, filtering on Instagram. Instead of “I saw him!” they said “I got him!”
Fairfax resident Alipia Sanchez, 46, scrolled through her photos and finally found a good one. Tears of relief filled her eyes. She had the digital relic that everyone had come for.
“He transmitted peace,” Sanchez said, which is exactly what she needed to feel and record. Sanchez, a house cleaner, left her native Peru for the United States in 1992, but in all that time, she has tried and failed to straighten out her immigration status.
“I am not a burden to this country,” she said. “I work and pay taxes. Primero Dios, God has sent the pope to convince the government of that.”
Jessica Contrera, Abigail Hauslohner, Joe Heim, Maura Judkis, Arelis Hernández, Lavanya Ramanathan and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.