Pontiff's route lined with faithful, along with some there to protest

Pope Benedict XVI waved to cheering spectators on Pennsylvania Avenue after leaving the White House following a meeting with President Bush yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI waved to cheering spectators on Pennsylvania Avenue after leaving the White House following a meeting with President Bush yesterday, (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

WASHINGTON - Yesterday at noon, across from the White House police barricades, a crush of devoted Catholics, protesters, and curious onlookers stood on their tiptoes along Pennsylvania Avenue, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the pope.

Some, like Yolette Bateau of Trenton, N.J., had waited since 6 a.m. to get a good place on the sidewalk.

"We just wanted to tell the pope that we support him," she said, standing near friends who carried guitars, tambourines, and a banner that read: "Diocese of Trenton New Jersey Welcomes the Pope."

Pope Benedict XVI's first full day of his tour of Washington and New York drew hordes of people who waited for hours just to see him ride by. Most waited out of an affirmation of faith, although a handful waited in protest. Many had traveled from as far away as California and Texas to get a close-up look at one of the world's spiritual leaders on his first visit to America as pope. Others drifted into the crowd as tourists, hoping to witness a historical event, however fleeting.

For some, the day began early, with late-night bus rides timed to reach the White House in the morning. By 7 a.m., spectators were milling about Pennsylvania Avenue with coffee, staking out their place on Pope Benedict's route through the nation's capital.

Ireneo Delzotto, a 21-year-old Croatian seminarian from the Archdiocese of Washington wore a starched white shirt, black pants, and a confident smile. He said that he had seen Pope Benedict many times in Rome and elsewhere, but that this visit was particularly important.

"The church in the US has to be awakened," he said. "It has lost the taste. . . . He is coming to give us hope, give us courage. In this generation of secularization, moral relativism, it has to be remembered that life comes from Christ. Without Christ, life doesn't make any sense."

But Ruth Reviriego, a 19-year-old high school senior from Linden, N.J., had a different point of view: that Catholicism is vibrant and thriving in the United States.

"We have been here playing drums, guitars, basically showing the world that the Catholic Church is alive," said Reviriego, who took the day off from school and woke in the middle of the night to get on one of two church buses that left at 4 a.m. "I'll never forget this experience."

At 11 a.m. Maria Key, a 46-year-old mother of four, had just completed a four-hour drive from Carlyle, Pa. By then the crowd was already five deep, and her littlest children could barely see through the thicket of people.

But Key, who saw Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1999, thought it was important for her children to be there. Seeing the Pope in person, she said, will be a milestone in their childhood. "More than if they watched it on TV," she said.

Aida Mejia, 24, who lives in Maryland and works a few blocks away from the White House, braved the crowd to try to get a look at Pope Benedict XVI, just because "it's historical," she said.

By the time she arrived, at noon, the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue had taken on the festive atmosphere of a street carnival or a parade.

A knot of musicians beat on drums, slapped tambourines, and strummed on guitars, singing songs celebrating Jesus.

"To be here right now means everything to me," said one guitarist, Greg Czaja, who is a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Stamford, Conn. He said he follows the Neocatechumenal Way, a grass-roots Catholic evangelical movement.

At the same time, protesters took the opportunity to voice their grievances with the church.

Some wore T-shirts that read, "Celibacy has failed." Members of an international group called Creciendo en Gracia shouted: "The pope is a criminal. He hides pedophiles!" into a megaphone.

Nearby, a man hoisting a sign that read, "Trust Jesus," preached ceaselessly against Catholicism into a small megaphone. He refused to stop, not even to debate angry Catholics who approached him - or to speak to a reporter.

"The multitudes of Catholics are on the broad path that leads to hell!" he cried. "Jesus Christ is the mediator, not Mary, not the priest!"

A man in the crowd called to him: "Give it a rest! Can't you just let us enjoy this moment?"

Soon after, the crowd, eagerly anticipating Pope Benedict's motorcade, let out a collective cry, but it quickly died down. False alarm. It was just a police officer on a bicycle. A few minutes later the cry rose again. It was followed by police motorcycles roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue. A small fleet of black sport utility vehicles with tinted windows followed the motorcycles. The pope was coming.

Then, if the spectators had arrived early enough, or were tall enough, or were lucky enough to work in an office overlooking the scene, they may have glimpsed a customized white Mercedes bearing an 81-year-old man in a white robe, seated in a specially constructed, bulletproof glass box affixed to the vehicle's rear. His right arm reached toward the throng. The crowd issued a collective shout as the pontiff sped past. Then he was gone.

At the moment Pope Benedict XVI passed, Reviriego, the high school senior from New Jersey, stood on a drum and screamed. Delzotto, the Croatian seminarian, smiled and thought of the scene of Jesus entering Jerusalem. Mejia, who was there just for history, took a blurry video.

Throughout it all, the man with the "Trust Jesus" sign railed on against Catholicism.

But a few minutes later, a group of drummers, guitarists, and tambourine players struck up their music again, singing so loudly that they drowned him out.

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