The crowd divided itself into two personality groups in the five hours before the pope entered the House chamber: those who would sit, sleep, and even snore the time away, and those who inevitably tripped over the first group. (Hopefully the standing audience had sympathy for some of their seated brethren: By 6:39 a.m., at least two Georgetown University students were sitting and studying textbooks on the lawn.)
Maria Rosales, 65, part of the same church group as Salgado, was among the first wave of walkers to make it up the Hill. Like her friend, Rosales is a papal admirer—she wasn’t, like some in the crowd, just there for the experience, however extraordinary it was. Rosales said Francis’s perspective—as the first pope from the Americas and one who’s worked extensively in poverty-stricken areas—is a new one for the papacy.
But she doesn’t see him as a political figure; he’s simply preaching the Gospels, she said, including when he talks about charged subjects such as climate change.
“People think it’s political because they just don’t want to hear it,” she said.
Cindy Hack, 60, who traveled with her husband from Wilmington, N.C., got her ticket from a former student—she’s a community college counselor—who now works in the Senate. Like Rosales, Hack doesn’t view the pope through a political lens. The frequent politicization of his message, she said, is a reflection of the country’s polarization: He just gets “pulled in.”
But for others, the political angle of what Francis has to say is deeply personal.
Juan Martinez, 20, of nearby Riverdale, Maryland, couldn’t sleep last night, after a leader from his Catholic youth ministry offered him a chance to see the pope. On the top of Martinez’s wish list early Thursday morning was for the pope to address immigration reform.
Martinez moved to the U.S. when he was 5 from El Salvador, where he recently traveled back for the first time; his 21-parish ministry group led a mission there. He works as a painter with his father now—his parents and U.S.-born little sister live in the area—but is hoping to get his barber’s license.
Martinez is also hoping for something else: a green card, and eventually a U.S. citizenship. He has a work permit, but a more permanent status would afford him scholarships and grants to go to school. Martinez wants the sometimes “hardheaded” Congress to listen to the pope’s immigration message and his emphasis on equality.
“This country was built off of immigrants,” he said, who came looking for a better life. “We have to open the doors to those that want the opportunity. Cause there’s people out there that want it.”
For all the Catholics or policy advocates on the West Lawn, there were others assembled who came simply for the experience, or because they admire the pope not as the leader of their own church, but for his force of personality. One Howard University student National Journal spoke with described the experience of seeing him as something she can tell her descendants about.