Pope Francis kisses baby, thrills crowds on first day in D.C.

WASHINGTON — Pope Francis thrilled a crowd of thousands who thronged to see the pontiff with his white, Jeep popemobile, process along the National Mall and the Ellipse — the only opportunity the general public had to see him during his 48-hour D.C. visit.

The pope moved slowly past the adoring crowd, lining 10-deep along Constitution Avenue, waving from the specially outfitted Jeep that is open on the sides.

At one point, a young girl carrying a yellow banner got outside the police barricade holding the crowds back and tried to approach the popemobile. She shied back when a bodyguard came near to pick her up and bring her to Francis. But then the pope gestured to her to come to him, and she allowed the bodyguard to pick her up and bring her to Francis for a papal kiss and blessing.

The pope also paused twice to have babies brought to him, and he kissed them on the head.

The crowds began forming well before dawn and groups of the faithful poured into two public viewing areas along the Ellipse and the grounds of the Washington Monument. Security lines flowed well and attendees reported no major issues gaining access to the parade route.

And a smaller crowd gathered around the Vatican Embassy, where the pope is staying, to watch him depart for the White House, where another 15,000 awaited his arrival.

Later at a prayer service with U.S. bishops, the pope asked Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, to apologize that he would be unable to greet all 300 bishops due to time constraints.

People traveled from Atlanta, Ecuador and other far-flung locations to see Francis. One predicted that when you see the pontiff, “you will feel peace in your heart.”

Another tells WTOP’s Kristi King she traveled to D.C. from Texas to “get some spiritual food from our pope.”

The faithful came not just to see the pope, but to hear his message and be inspired.

One man told WTOP’s Nick Iannelli at a checkpoint near 18th Street and Constitution Avenue that he hopes the pope brings a message of “joy and happiness.”

Papal views on parade

Pope Frances also began to hammer home his message aimed at the Catholic faithful, U.S. political leaders and the American populace at large in the opening hours of his D.C. visit.

During events at the White House and at a D.C. cathedral, Pope Francis wasted no time addressing his top issues during his first trip to the United States, discussing immigration, family, climate change, religious freedom and clergy abuse.

“Climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation,” Francis said during his opening remarks at a White House ceremony.

And he told President Barack Obama that he found the president’s proposal to reduce air pollution “encouraging.”

But he started off his brief remarks by addressing the issue of immigration to the U.S. with a reminder that he too is from an immigrant family.

“I am happy to be in this country, which was built by such families,” he said.

He said the goal of his trip was to listen to and share in the hopes and dreams of the American people, but also to celebrate the “institutions of marriage and family at this critical moment.”

While Pope Francis and the president may agree on the dangers of a changing climate, they disagree on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

Although both mentioned the importance of defending religious liberty, the pope also advocated for tolerance.

A native Spanish speaker, Pope Francis gave his remarks in slow but clear English. He was set to celebrate Mass Wednesday afternoon in Spanish.

President Obama’s remarks were decidedly more spiritual in tone, referring adherence to Scripture and noting “what a beautiful day the Lord has made.”

He highlighted the pope’s call to welcome and embrace immigrants and refugees. He also thanked the pope for his support of the United States’ renewed relationship with Cuba and his reminder to the world of the obligations to protect the planet.

The pope’s visit has generated excitement among Americans, not simply because of his role as a world and faith leader, but because of his message of mercy, Obama said.

“You are shaking us out of our complacency,” the president said. “You shake our conscience from slumber … and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free.”

Obama noted that the South Lawn isn’t normally so crowded but that the size of the gathering was a reflection of how the pope has inspired so many.

The pope also didn’t hold back during his homily before roughly 300 U.S. bishops who gathered for a prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Rhode Island Avenue.

He spoke out against abortion and against environmental devastation. He spoke on behalf of immigrants, too, and pushed a few other hot buttons. All in one sentence.

He said: “The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature _ at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters.”

Such positions will likely be placed in front of Congress on Thursday when Francis addresses U.S. lawmakers.

Francis also prayed for the victims of clergy sex abuse, which has spanned decades at the hands and has rocked the church.

“We have to hope that such crimes will never repeat themselves,” he said.

Francis he also praised U.S. bishops for their response to the sex abuse crisis and used his homily almost as a pep talk for bishops, telling them to be good shepherds of their flock.

Speaking to the 300 assembled bishops, Francis lauded them for what he called their “generous commitment to bring healing to victims.” He praised them for having courage and acting, as he saw it, “without fear of self-criticism.”

The clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the U.S. in 2002 and turned into the biggest crisis in the history of the American church.

Under enormous public pressure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to oust any guilty clergy from church work and enact safeguards for children.

However, the scandal persists, and victims say the bishops still haven’t fully accounted for sheltering abusers. This year, three bishops resigned in crises over their failures to protect children.

Roads and Rails

Metro reports that ridership was down about 14 percent from a typical weekday morning and managed to avoid any major disruptions. Traffic on roads throughout the region was also lighter than a typical morning rush hour.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel believed that many had heeded the call to work from home. “That’s the power of telework.”

As of 11 a.m., the parking lots at the Rhode Island Avenue and Fort Totten stations — nearest to the basilica — were full.

Wednesday evening, after the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception ends, will bring another test of the roads and rails as worshippers mingle with workers heading home, baseball fans and Jewish faithful heading to sundown Yom Kippur services.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano, Kristi King, Nick Iannelli and Neal Augenstein plus The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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