- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

When Pope Benedict XVI arrived in one of President Bush’s armored limousines yesterday at the White House South Portico and the vehicle’s back door opened, for a few brief moments there was no movement.

The vast scene — top government officials, young children straining to see from the back, military honor guard members holding flags — was still and silent.

Then, all of a sudden, out of the dark interior of the black limousine appeared the bright white cassock worn by Benedict, and the massive crowd roared its approval.

The outpouring of affection and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church’s leader continued on the first full day of his six-day visit to the U.S., which included two lengthy motorcades through adoring throngs in the world-renowned Mercedes popemobile.

‘Down in front’

The White House has never staged quite a show — 13,500 invited guests, nearly double the largest crowd ever on the White House grounds, which occurred last summer when Queen Elizabeth II visited.

But every big show has its problems, and this was no different.

Thousands packed the lawn early, hours before the 10:30 a.m. arrival of the pope. But just 45 minutes before the big moment, hundreds of reporters and photographers were let loose, and they promptly took up prime real estate — right in front of the guests.

“Down in front!” one man shouted as a few photographers set up ladders to capture the perfect picture.

Others also loped in to block the view, including a group of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, along with members of the Knights of Columbus, who were led onto the South Lawn right in front of hundreds who had grabbed spots straight across from the podium.

But the Girl Scouts must have been standing for hours — they stood on the lawn for nearly an hour — as four either passed out or got so wobbly that a uniformed guard took them to the medical tent. The guard caught one young girl just as her legs buckled, and hoisted up another limp youngster to speed her to aid.

Minutes later, a slew of White House workers descended on the group, offering water and advice — don’t lock your legs back, bend your knees, they said as they demonstrated how not to pass out on the South Lawn when the pope is in town.

Excitement

Thousands of people stacked up 10-deep in spots along Pennsylvania Avenue to catch a glimpse of the pope, who rolled out of the White House just before noon and rode along the wide street in his glass-enclosed car.

“Is that it? What’s it look like?” one anxious woman said from behind a steel barricade at the intersection of 17th Street and Pennsylvania in Northwest.

“It’s like a big golf cart, except he can stand up in it,” her friend said as they both laughed.

A minute later, the famed popemobile — made necessary after a would-be assassin shot Pope John Paul II — rolled by. Hundreds held cameras high as they became papal paparazzi, snapping the shots of a lifetime.

“There he is! Right there! See him?” the women screamed in unison.

The excitement was over in just a few seconds as the pope rolled out of view. But the women didn’t mind one bit. “We just saw the pope — the pope!” one gushed.

Signs of the times

Any visit by a world leader brings thousands out to protest, and the pope is no different.

Throngs marched through vocal supporters carrying signs that said “Celibacy Doesn’t Work” and “Pedophile Priests — Protect Your Children.”

Hundreds along Pennsylvania Avenue chanted “The Pope is a criminal,” while another person carried a sign calling him a pimp. A huge group of Hispanics chanted in Spanish that the pope molests children. “He Is To Blame,” said another sign. “100,000 sexually abused kids in the U.S.,” said another.

Hundreds more stood in support of the pontiff, singing and banging tambourines and drums as they marched around.

But on the White House lawn, there were softer signs. One toddler held aloft a sign that said “We love you pope of hope.” Another wished the pope happy birthday, and one made note of the pontiff’s Bavarian heritage.

“We Love Our German Shepherd,” said the sign carried by a small boy.

Traffic was blocked and parking prohibited along Massachusetts Avenue’s 3300 block, where Benedict has temporary residence.

A crowd of young people was allowed to gather outside, and they broke out in a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” before the pope departed for the shrine there.

Waiting for two hours were Gabriel Galvan, 47, and his son, Michael, 11, a fifth-grader skipping school, from Leesburg, Va.

“I’m here because I always wanted to see the pope,” said Michael. “It’s a good religion. He is doing all he can to help the people, help them find their way to God.”

Vendors were on hand — of course — to cash in on the first U.S. visit by a pope since 1999. Some sold flags and replicas of the Holy See emblem, others buttons or T-shirts — one said “I Was There.”

“Get ‘em while you can,” one pushy vendor said.

‘Happy Birthday’

Benedict turned 81 years old yesterday, and impromptu shouts wishing him well were accompanied at the White House ceremony by the large crowd’s spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Taking in the sunny blue skies and clear spring morning air, the pope was a commanding but unassuming presence at the White House, taking pains to show his gratitude to the ebullient crowd with waves and a vigorous “God bless America” to close out his remarks.

Benedict’s limo drove onto the White House grounds at 10:26 a.m., and after emerging, the pope greeted a line of top government officials that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who bent and kissed the pontiff’s ring.

Benedict then walked firmly but slowly onto a small stage with Mr. Bush, and waved with both arms to the cheering multitude. The Marine Band played the anthem of the Holy See while a 21-gun salute sounded off on the National Mall.

After the U.S. national anthem and the playing of a marching fife-and-drum band, the crowd broke spontaneously into singing “Happy Birthday” to Benedict, who acknowledged them by standing and waving once again.

Andrea Billups and Arlo Wagner contributed to this story.

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