WASHINGTON (CNS) — The streets and sidewalks of Washington, normally packed on weekday mornings, were like a ghost town Sept. 23 save for those making their way to security checkpoints for papal parade spots and the vendors selling papal T-shirts, buttons, flags and posters.
And as thousands of people made their way around the Washington Monument under a clear blue sky and bright sunshine to stake out their spots for the papal parade, the mood was festive but calm.
If you looked closely, you would see a line of people waiting to go to impromptu confessionals, as priests from the Washington Archdiocese stood along a row of metal barricades to hear confessions.
“It’s not a World Series parade,” said Jonathan Lewis, director of young adult ministry and evangelization for the Archdiocese of Washington. Lewis, volunteering along the parade route, got started at 3 a.m. (EDT) that day.
He acknowledged that many of the thousands who lined the route certainly came because of the appeal of Pope Francis, but he said they also were there because of what the pope does: “He points us to Christ.”
Lewis said the sense of community at the event was clear, especially with so many people of different cultures there, but he also believed people would walk away with a renewed sense of mission.
“This is a kickoff moment,” he told Catholic News Service. “It’s easy to cheer for Francis; it takes more courage to walk with Francis.”
But that’s not to say the pope doesn’t have plenty of rock star appeal, which was apparent in the cheering, waving and willingness to wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of him.
For some, it is a simple admiration. Gustavo Perez, a Venezuelan immigrant, said he likes the pope for his “solidarity with poor people.”
Gabriela Gonzalez, from Greenbelt, Maryland, like many in the crowd, said she came because of her love of the pope. “I love his humility and how he is a leader to the people. He’s a great pastor.”
She said she has not been a practicing Catholic but is coming back to the church because of the pope’s words and example.
And for others, the journey to Washington mid-morning on what was a beautiful September day was a practical one.
“Why not?” said Lynn DeLeon, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Parish in Damascus, Maryland. “There’s no way you can miss this.”
Her daughter Sarah, who recently graduated from the University of Maryland, agreed, saying the pope has broad appeal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“He’s also very humble,” she said.
The crowd got this. Although they saved their biggest cheers for when the pope drove by them, they also cheered from afar when they heard the pope on the Jumbotron television screen introduce himself to President Barack Obama and all people of the United States as a “son of an immigrant family.”