WASHINGTON – Thousands of onlookers hailing from Maine to California and beyond crammed themselves along Pennsylvania Avenue Wednesday to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI in his popemobile.
Benedict’s ride is one of the few opportunities the public — who were unable to obtain tickets to Thursday’s stadium Mass — has to view the head of the Roman Catholic Church during his historic visit to the nation’s capital.
The trip is Benedict’s first to the United States as head of the church and the first time a pope has visited the District since 1979. Benedict waved to cheering spectators as he was driven from a White House reception to the Vatican embassy on Observatory Circle.
Curious workers, devout Catholics and families converged to see the religious head for almost 70 million U.S. Catholics. Some waved flags. Others danced. And some even held happy birthday signs for Benedict’s 81st birthday, which was Wednesday.
Alison and Peter Melley of Gaithersburg decided to bring their three children — Sara, Liam and Aidan — at the last minute.
“We said we couldn’t miss it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Alison said. “I just knew they’d remember it forever.”
Alison pulled Sara out of Mary of Nazareth Elementary in Darnestown this morning, but didn’t get much of an argument about it.
“I just walked in and said I was taking her to see the pope and they said OK,” Alison said. “We surprised her. She didn’t even know we were going to come.”
Peter works in Washington and met them along the route.
“It’s just a very special moment . . . to have that brush with someone who is so holy,” he said.
It was obvious many workers, with badges around their necks or clipped to their belts, were using their lunch hour to catch a view, or were just stuck on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ben Redmond, a student at George Washington University who works on Pennsylvania Avenue, said he arrived to an empty office.
“No one’s there. Everyone’s out looking for the pope,” Redmond said. “He’s a major international figure and they don’t just shut down Pennsylvania Avenue for anyone.”
Margaret Burger, who moved to the United States two weeks ago from Poland and interns with the Center for Applied Linguistics here, said she saw Pope John Paul II twice in Poland, but that didn’t diminish the experience of seeing Benedict for the first time.
“It was fantastic. I almost started to cry. I got goose bumps when he was passing,” Burger said. “It’s something you won’t forget for the rest of your life.”
Kay Stromgren crossed the country from Pleasanton, Calif., just to see Benedict.
“This to me is a pilgrimage. It’s not a sightseeing tour,” she said.
Tickets for Benedict’s Thursday Mass at Nationals Park, Stromgren said, were impossible to come by. But, even a two-second glimpse of Benedict, Stromgren said, made the trip worthwhile.
“I guess I should say I’m a cradle Catholic so this is like the highlight of my life and I didn’t have to go all the way to Italy,” Stromgren said. “It was awesome. It shakes me to my bones.”
Dawn Timberlake of Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., missed Pope John Paul II when he visited the United States in 1979 and didn’t want the same thing to happen to her children.
“I didn’t go and always regret it,” Timberlake said.
Timberlake home-schools her children and brought her three oldest– Paige, 13, Sean, 11, and Bill, 8, to catch the pontiff.
The four of them sat on camping chairs along the metal gates protecting the pope’s route.
“This is our field trip today,” Timberlake said. “It’s probably the one-time chance to see the pope.”
Not everyone watching Benedict’s motorcade was Catholic or was happy to see him. Protestors held signs criticizing the Catholic Church mostly for the large number of priests who have been accused of molestation. Even before Benedict touched American soil, he’d said he was “ashamed” of the church sex scandal.