The crowd gathered along the parade route hours before Pope Francis was due to ride by in his Popemobile following the welcome ceremony at the White House. It was possible to see the White House lawn itself, from a distance, but the main attraction here was staking out a good spot to take a photo of the Pontiff.
Why did they come? After talking to a few of those waiting to see him — those who weren’t wearing blue “Love is Our Mission” shirts or Pope paraphernalia — it became clear that Pope Francis has succeeded in reaching out to “the peripheries”, for many of them, weren’t Catholics, or even Christians.
It’s also clear that while he’s got their attention, he’s still got work to do.
Coral Keegan, age 24, who lives in Washington, DC but is originally from New York, is a baptised Catholic, but not a regular chuchgoer. She came because, “I like that he’s accepting of gays and lesbians, which the church didn’t do before.”
Does the pope make her want to go to Mass again?”No,” she said, “I don’t think it’s necessary for being a spiritual person.” Lying in the grass next to her, was Jorge Gonzalez, age 27, and originally from Colombia.
“I like how humble he is. He’s taken himself off a high, holy spot, and is showing himself as just a human being.” Raised a Catholic, Gonzalez doesn’t attend church regularly, and says that in spite of his positive feelings about the pope, he probably won’t start.
Dustin Meyer, a 31 year-old from Iowa, was another former Catholic. “I was raised Catholic, but I’m not Catholic. My grandmother is devoutly so, and she was very excited that the pope was coming to Washington, so I’m here to take some pictures for her.”
He too admires Pope Francis, “I have a very deep respect for him. He evinces the very best qualities of faith in general and in the Catholic Church in particular. He takes a lot of the focus on the negative components of religion and refocuses them on the positive components.”
Fletcher Karper, a 21 year old from Pennsylvania, who attends George Washington University, said, “I’m an agnostic I guess. I’m just interested to see the Pope since he’s here. I guess it’s just the celebrity factor.”
Jenna Porter, 24, from Massachusetts said, “Actually, I’m not Catholic, but I have a lot of admiration for the Holy Father. I’ve always been interested in religious studies even though I’m not religious. I think Pope Francis is a galvanizing figure. He’s a lot more optimistic, compassionate, and in touch with people than most leaders at his level. He’s an example of how religion can have a positive effect on people. ” She continued, “By sharing the original gospel that says treat people as you would have them treat you, he is himself a model of how to act as a human.”
Sharon, a 68 year old “lapsed Catholic from Virginia” said, “I just think he’s wonderful, and I wanted to part a part of the celebration. I like his commitment to the poor and social justice, and I think he’s brought a great spirit to the Church.”
Does this mean she will return to the Church? “I’m not hostile to the Catholic Church, but I probably won’t go back to Mass,” she said.
Pope Francis had his faithful in attendance, of course. Steve Ciccarelli, a 68 year old from Virginia, said, “I happen to love St. Francis, I mean Pope Francis — Freudian slip. His whole philosophy and persona is completely different then anything we’ve ever seen, different than Benedict, and different than John Paul.”
“This pope shows mercy and compassion at a level that we haven’t seen since St. Francis. He’s truly a father to seven billion people , even if they aren’t Catholics and Christians. He really believes in humanity,” said Ciccarelli.
And Jenny and Jorge Santiago, both of New York, but originally from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, were looking forward to seeing the Pope, and had tickets for the Mass at the Basillica.
Asked how they felt about the Mass being celebrated in their native tongue, Jenny said, “Honestly, language shouldn’t be a problem. I had to learn English when I came here.” Jose chimed in, “He speaks the language of love — that’s enough.”
It clearly is enough to get people to turn out to the streets to see the pope but as this recent PEW study suggests, getting them to turn in toward the church and the sacraments remains a challenge.
Zelda Caldwell is Managing Editor of AleteiaEN