FAQ: Pope Francis visits Washington

WASHINGTON — Excitement is growing ahead of Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States, particularly his first stop in D.C. WTOP has put together a list of frequently-asked questions ahead of the pope’s visit.

The pontiff has a packed schedule during the 48 hours he’s in the District. Most events are ticketed, and those tickets are hard to come by.

However, the pope added a visit to the National Mall where spectators who arrive early and pass through security can line the streets where he’ll pass in the popemobile.

Quick Facts:

  • The pontiff will visit D.C., then New York and Philadelphia.
  • It will be his first trip to the U.S.
  • He will be the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, and perform a canonization in America.
  • The Archdiocese of Washington set up a text/email alert system for his visit.
  • The United States Park Police is offering email and text message updates on the Papal Parade. To sign up for email alerts, visit the website. For mobile alerts, text “POPEFRANCIS” to 888777.
  • Events will be live-streamed here at WTOP.com and at walkwithfrancis.org
  • The pope’s visit has two official hashtags: #WalkwithFrancis and #PopeinDC

What is Pope Francis’ background?

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the pontiff is originally from Argentina. He was ordained in 1969 and became a cardinal under Pope John Paul II.

After becoming pope, Francis told journalists in March 2013 that he chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi and has focused on poverty during his papacy. He is the first pope to use the name Francis, so there are no numerals following it.

His Twitter handle is @Pontifex.

Who will be canonized at the basilica?

Junipero Serra will become a saint during a canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Serra was a Franciscan from Spain who established the first Catholic missions in California in the 1700s and is considered a great evangelizer. But he is a controversial figure and some Native Americans accuse him of forced conversions, for destroying indigenous culture and spreading disease.

Read more about Serra:

Where can I get tickets?

Tickets for the few events open to the public are extremely limited, and the venues are small. So the short answer is, if you don’t already have tickets, they are likely out of reach.

Tickets for the pope’s midday prayer at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle with area bishops were distributed through local parishes in early and mid-August.

Members of Congress received tickets to distribute for the pope’s visit to the Capitol.

Tickets for the Mass to be held outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the adjacent University Mall on the campus of Catholic University of America were given out through area churches.

What’s the pope’s itinerary?

The pope arrives on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 22, at Andrews Air Force Base. His overnight accommodations are not being made public.

During his two-day official visit, he’ll meet with President Barack Obama and the first lady, area bishops, members of Congress and representatives from local charities.

See his full itinerary with descriptions of what he’s doing at each location here.

Where can I see the pope without tickets?

The Archdiocese of Washington confirms the pope will tour the Ellipse and part of the National Mall so those without a ticket will be able to see the pontiff.

The popemobile will drive a parade route along the mall after the pope’s scheduled 9 a.m. visit with President Obama at the White House on Sept. 23, according to the archdiocese.

There are no tickets required to see the pope along the mall, but expect to pass through security.

Security gates will open at 4 a.m. and no one will be allowed to enter the secure area after 10 a.m. See more details of the pope’s route along the National Mall here.

On Sept. 23, the pope’s day — including his parade along the mall, his address to U.S. bishops and the canonization Mass — will be broadcast on a large screen set up on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.

Here are other opportunities visitors may be able to see the pope entering and exiting locations:

  • Wednesday, Sept. 23, 11:30 a.m. — See the pontiff enter/exit the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Rhode Island Avenue NW
  • Wednesday, Sept. 23, 4:15 p.m. — Along the route to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Michigan Avenue NE before and after the pope celebrates an outdoor Mass there. The Mass itself is a ticketed event and the campus of adjacent Catholic University will be closed to the general public. His route to the basilica has not yet been released.
  • Thursday, Sept. 24, 9:20 a.m. — The pope visits the U.S. Capitol to speak to a joint meeting of Congress. The entrance he’ll use is not being made public.

Video screens will be set up on the West Front of the Capitol, facing the National Mall. Francis is also expected to appear on the Capitol balcony after his speech.

  • Thursday, Sept. 24, 11:15 a.m. — Pope Francis will head to Saint Patrick’s Church in downtown and within two hours will walk across the courtyard to the headquarters of Catholic Charities.

Spectators might be able to catch a glimpse of the pontiff over the courtyard’s G Street fence.

Will I see the pope riding by?

It’s possible. The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will ride in a Jeep Wrangler during his visit to the U.S. Read more about the Jeep Popemobile here.

Pope Francis
FILE — In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, thousands line the streets to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis in his motorcade as drives by, aboard his Popemobile, in Quito, Ecuador. Pope Francis will show his rugged side when he greets the faithful from a specially outfitted Jeep Wrangler during his upcoming U.S. visit. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa, File)

Given the clear enclosure, many walking around Washington will likely see the pope en route to his next location.

The routes have not been confirmed.

The Vatican said the Jeep is already in the hands of the Secret Service and won’t be displayed before the pope’s visit.

How will this affect my commute?

Expect major delays and road closures. Many employers are asking their workers to look to the closures and plan a route to and from work. Others are suggesting taking public transportation.

On the roads:

Seventy intersections will need to be manned by traffic controllers during the pope’s visit. Find detailed closure maps here.

Major thoroughfares in the District will be affected. The District Department of Transportation has said northbound traffic on Massachusetts Avenue will be closed in front of the Vatican Embassy. Also, 14th Street and Independence Avenue NW will be closed as will roads around the Basilica, including, but not limited to, Michigan Avenue.

Read more about planned D.C. road closures and the impact for commuters plus see maps here.

DDOT anticipates the biggest delays will come Wednesday morning in Virginia because the road closures in town, including Constitution Avenue, will trigger backups across the Potomac River.

“On G.W. Parkway coming down south into the city, our models show for the worst-case conditions an hour and 45-minute delay,” says Wasim Raja, a traffic signal manager.

The delays on Interstate 66 could reach an hour and a half, he says.

Heavy pedestrian traffic could also close some roads in Arlington County near the Pentagon and Rosslyn Metro stations. The county warns drivers to be aware that some intersections and access to the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge could be restricted between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

On the rails:

Both  MARC and VRE will run regular commuter train service. Riders should expect crowded stations and possible delays in Virginia.

Metro will operate at near-rush hour capacity on the Wednesday and Thursday of the papal visit.

It plans to have ready 978 cars for the rail system, dozens more than are in use on a typical weekday.

“Have that SmarTrip card loaded for two or three days worth of funding so you don’t have to go to a fare machine,” says Jack Requa, Metro’s interim general manager.

In a statement, Metro says it is preparing for the pope’s visit much like it prepares for a large scale event such as an inauguration. The transit service will be running near rush hour service throughout the day to accommodate the expected surge in riders.

“We are currently working on our service plans and are advising those who choose to use Metro to expect large crowds at stations and extended wait times due to the large volume of people. We anticipate buses will experience detours, causing delays for some Metrobus customers,” the statement reads.

Metro has posted details about Metrobus detours and other bus changes here.

On two wheels or two feet:

DDOT says the street closures apply to pedestrians and cyclists as well.

It released a series of alternate routes that drivers and bicyclists can use to avoid road closures that will be in effect surrounding areas the pope is expected to visit.

Capital Bikeshare will be hosting three corrals to accommodate the events surrounding the papal visit. Corrals offer riders unlimited space to park their bikes.

On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, a corral will be set up at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW from 7 a.m. until noon. Another corral will be set up at 10th and Monroe Street NE from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. You must be a Capital Bikeshare member before checking out a bike.

Some counties, including Arlington, offer a comfort level map for new bikers who are interested in commuting safely to work. Bike Arlington has a map for new commuters. See Fairfax’s bike map here.


Parking will also be at a premium as the District will restrict parking along detour routes. Find a full list of parking restrictions here.

Anticipate additional parking restrictions and keep an eye out for additional special event parking signs. Street sweeping-related parking restrictions will not be enforced Wednesday or Thursday.

Commercial parking garage operators are advising customers to reserve their parking garage spaces in advance.  Colonial Parking, a large garage operator in the District, has a Web page set up for drivers to reserve their spots.

What other events downtown could affect traffic and commutes?

Conditions Wednesday evening are shaping up to create a perfect traffic storm. In addition to the papal events, religious observances, baseball and concerts will bring additional congestion to downtown D.C.

The Nationals take on the Baltimore Orioles at 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park. Ed Sheeran plays the Verizon Center at 7:30 p.m. And Joe Walsh of the Eagles performs at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre.

Wednesday is also a major Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur. So expect added traffic around the city’s many synagogues as worshippers head to evening services.

Will there be road closures near Andrews Air Force Base?

No standing closures have been announced. But it’s possible there could be some temporary road restrictions when the pope arrives at Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday afternoon and again when he departs for New York Thursday afternoon.

To plan for that possibility, however, Prince George’s County Public Schools warns parents that buses could be delayed due to traffic congestion or the pope’s motorcade passing through the county.

Two charter schools in the county will have an early dismissal Tuesday. Imagine Andrews Public Charter School and Imagine Foundations at Morningside Public Charter School will dismiss two hours earlier than normal.

What if I work for the federal government?

In a memo from the Office of Personnel Management, acting director Beth Cobert asked agencies to let their employees telecommute as a way of avoiding the crowds.

If employees must come in, Cobert recommends that they add extra travel time to get to and from the office.

“Employees are encouraged to monitor local news media for announcements on street closures for vehicular and pedestrian traffic, closures or disruptions to public transportation, building closures, or any possible changes to the Washington, D.C. area Federal Government operating status,” the memo says.

Bottom line: “The Pope made me late” is not going to fly.

Will schools be open?

All D.C. public schools will be open while Pope Francis is in Washington; however, several charter schools will be closed Wednesday.

KIPP Charter Schools told WTOP that it is closing all 16 of its campuses. Officials say they felt it was appropriate because of the anticipated traffic woes; KIPP’s open enrollment system means that their students come from all across the District, so getting to school could well be difficult.

What about trash pickup?

Wednesday morning trash pickup in Wards 4 and 5 will start at 6 a.m. with the plan to finish before streets are closed. Thursday morning trash pickup in Ward 3 will start at 7 a.m.

The Fort Totten Transfer Station will close early Wednesday, with the line to enter the facility ending at 12:30 p.m. and the facility shutting down at 1.  Residents will be able to use the Benning Road Transfer Station instead.

What mode of transport should I take if I’m traveling to see the pontiff in Philadelphia or New York?

Folks who plan to use bus transportation between Washington, Philadelphia and New York during his stay will see some service changes.

See an outlined list of specific carriers and what impact they expect on regular schedules here.

What do I say if I meet the Holy Father?

Refer to him as Your Holiness, says Don Clemmer, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

If it isn’t a solemn event, Clemmer says feel free to cheer and celebrate upon seeing him. You can shake his hand or if you’re Catholic kiss the papal ring.

“Pope Francis doesn’t mind hugs, but it does alarm him when people run up to him,” Clemmer says.

If you make eye contact, it’s the practice of the faithful to genuflect — bow with one knee to the ground.

Pope Francis also has the habit of taking selfies, Clemmer says.

Can I get information sent to me during the pope’s visit?

Yes. Sign up for updates through the Archdiocese of Washington, which is coordinating the details of the pope’s visit.  Visit http://www.adw.org/papalvisit/ or text the phrase “PopeinDC” to 84576.

Sign up for WTOP alerts to stay abreast of traffic, transit and pope-related news during his visit.

Will I have trouble getting a cellphone signal at the event?

Providers are working to expand and adjust capacity as the city gets ready to welcome the pope.

“This is massive,” says Terry Hayes, vice president for T-Mobile in the Northeast.

Hayes expects cell network demand in D.C. during the papal visit will exceed the needs of crowds attending a Super Bowl game or New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

When calls can’t get through, he says, send a text instead.  Find what your network is doing to prepare here.

Clarification: This story has been changed to clarify that the general public will not be able to hear Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This is a ticketed event.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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