- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eric Santiago awoke before dawn in San Diego with his 11-year-old son Jerome to board a flight to Baltimore so they could be among the 25,000 people celebrating Mass with Pope Francis Wednesday afternoon.

Carmen Martinez De Pinillos started her day with a 4 a.m. Mass at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, before boarding a bus with fellow parishioners bound for Washington, D.C.

“We were the first bus here,” said the 73-year-old retired social worker as she sat in the grass to relax in one of many coveted patches of shade. “So we had to be in line. We sang songs along the way.”

Many of the thousands who clustered Wednesday afternoon amid the acres of grass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception awaiting Francis’ arrival woke up far earlier than usual in order to see the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the flesh.

No one complained of fatigue — rather it was the chance of a lifetime for the thousands who flooded the city to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

When the pope did arrive just before 4 p.m., he waved to cheering and picture-snapping crowds from his open-sided popemobile as it cruised through small roadways across the basillica’s campus.

Earlier, the White House had mustered all the pageantry it had to offer as President Obama greeted the pontiff on the South Lawn. After giving public remarks, in which Francis delivered a firm message against those who doubt the science of climate change, the two sat down for a 40-minute one-on-one meeting.

Departing the White House meeting, Francis greeted more early-risers who had gathered along a parade route on Constitution Avenue.

Kimberly Johnson, a 27-year-old medical student who lives in Washington, said she arrived outside the security gates at midnight in order to be the first one let into the secured viewing area that opened at 4 a.m.

“It’s not just that he’s the pope, he’s a cool pope,” Ms. Johnson said. “He’s bringing the Catholic Church into the 21st century and making it a more accessible faith.”

Along the heavily guarded parade route around the National Mall, bodyguards ferried several babies from behind police barricades to the popemobile for pontifical kisses. At one point, a 5-year-old girl in pigtails and tennis shoes tried to approach the Jeep. When security guards tried to shoo her away, Francis motioned her over and bestowed a papal kiss and blessing.

The event drew a mixed crowd of D.C. residents and travelers. Church groups, families, nuns, pilgrims and curious Americans joined together to welcome the pope.

The Archdiocese of Washington orchestrated the Walk with Francis, which included a pilgrimage starting with 6 a.m. Masses and prayers followed by a walk to the Ellipse. Other travelers came from as far as California to see the pope, many for the first time. People waved flags and wore T-shirts bearing slogans like “Love like Francis: love without limits.”

A large screen displayed live coverage of Francis and Mr. Obama during the welcome ceremony, and the crowd erupted in cheers when both leaders appeared on screen and addressed the audience.

In his speech Mr. Obama emphasized the significance of the first pope of the Americas visiting the U.S. for the first time and praised Francis for his encyclical on environmental awareness and protection, a topic the pontiff and the Obama administration have seen as a priority.

Francis gave a brief speech in English, one of only four to be given in that language — the remaining 10 being in Spanish — and touched briefly on climate change.

“Climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to future generations,” he said.

After the parade ended, security personnel removed the gates and released the crowds, which flocked up the streets to the Metro stations amid officials’ warning of packed subway rides and gridlocked traffic.

As one onlooker said: “Getting back on the Metro, now that’s purgatory.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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