Arizonans join throngs in, around White House for start of pope’s visit

WASHINGTON – She was looking at a pope and a president Wednesday, but Tucson resident Margarita Bernal said she could just as easily have been watching a “rock star” at the White House.

Bernal was one of 11,000 ticketed guests on the South Lawn of the White House – and many thousands more lining the streets outside – for the first official stop of Pope Francis’ tour of the United States.

“We waited for three hours,” Bernal said after the event. “There’s an aura about him that I could get from the bleachers … you could tell he is a very sweet man.”

On a beautiful autumn morning in Washington, President Barack Obama welcomed the pope as a man who set a “profound moral example” for others. The pope, in brief remarks, said he looked forward to “these days of encounter and dialogue in which I hope to listen to and share many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.”

Pope Francis used the opportunity to call for building a “tolerant and inclusive” society, protecting individual rights and safeguarding religious liberty, among other issues. He spent much of his speech talking about the need to address climate change, an issue that has proven controversial to some, including some Catholics.

“It seems clear to me … that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation,” according to the text of his speech.

Tucson native Donald Walters is not one of those Catholics who is upset by Pope Francis’ stand on climate change.

“I think some people see those as political issues,” Walters said. “But they are really consistent with the teaching of the Church.”

Walters was among the thousands gathered on the Ellipse south of the White House, watching the speech on a big-screen TV and hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope during a short parade on the streets around the White House after the event.

Vendors sold souvenirs on nearly every corner and at almost every Metro stop, and many in the crowd wore shirts and buttons adorned with the pope’s name and likeness, while others waved small Vatican City flags. People showed up hours before the event, and most of the parade route was already lined before the pope event arrived at the White House.

They were waiting for the “Popemobile” and did not appear to be disappointed when it showed up, even if it passed quickly. As Pope Francis waved from the back of the specially built, white Jeep Wrangler, people on the parade route cheered, and some cried, while others ran across the Ellipse in hopes of catching another glimpse.

Following the parade, the pope held his first mass on U.S. soil at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he canonized 18th century Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, a missionary in California.

Wednesday was Pope Francis’ first full day in the U.S. after a three-day visit to Cuba. The pope is credited with helping start the recent thaw in relations between the two countries.

He is scheduled to speak to Congress Thursday – the first time a pope has ever done so – before traveling to New York and a speech to the United Nations on Friday, with visits over the weekend to a conference on families in Philadelphia. He is scheduled to return to the Vatican on Sunday.

Walters called the pope’s visit “an opportunity for all Americans to reflect upon the role of faith in their lives and to understand that the pope’s message of service to others is a key in terms of elevating everyone in the country.”

“His message is inspiring to all of us,” Walters said, before disappearing into the crowd to try to get a look at the Popemobile.

That message is inspiring even to some non-Catholics.

“I’m not Catholic myself, but as a person of faith, Pope Francis is still a great moral leader,” said Alex Egbert, an Ahwatukee native who now lives in Washington.

Egbert did not attend Wednesday’s events, but plans to be on the West Lawn of the Capitol on Thursday morning to watch a simulcast of the pope’s history-making address to Congress.

“Especially important to me is religious liberty,” Egbert said. “And a figure who emphasizes not only Christ’s commandment to be personally righteous, but also love thy neighbor.”

Egbert said Pope Francis emphasizes both.

After Wednesday’s event, Bernal was still feeling amazed.

“It was a very moving half an hour,” she said. “It wasn’t very long, but the pomp and the circumstance, and his words, and the president’s words, were fairly amazing.”

– Cronkite News reporters Adriana Barajas, Elizabeth Blackburn and Charles McConnell contributed to this report.


– Cronkite News video by Elizabeth Blackburn