Watching Pope Francis With Wonder on the West Lawn

The 55,000-strong crowd made a predawn pilgrimage to the Hill to see the pope. They were not disappointed.

Pope Francis on the Speaker's Balcony, looking out onto the West Lawn, after his address to a joint meeting of Congress.  (Pool AFP/Getty)

As Pope Francis addressed Congress on Thursday morning—though really, some of his admirers would later say, he was speaking to the entire world—a little girl floated through the crowd assembled on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

Perched on the shoulders of a man walking through the pack, she drew whispered words of recognition from some in the horde, and smiled gently into the camera lenses of those who tried to take her picture.

They recognized her as Sofia Cruz, the pig-tailed, 5-year-old Angelena who on Wednesday eluded the heavy security measures established for this—the pope’s first visit to the United States—and delivered him a letter asking for his support for immigration reform.

Little Sofia, it seems, hadn’t gotten enough of the pope—she had to come back to see him before he departed for New York. The rest of the crowd couldn’t get enough of him either.

“He’s bringing new light to the church,” said Karim Salgado, 40, of San Francisco, in town with a group from her church. “As Catholics, we’re evolving” and the pope is a “breath of fresh air.”

The lucky 50,000 or so who received tickets to the West Lawn viewing of Francis’s address began trudging up the Hill at 5 a.m., some quickly staking their plots on the wet grass with plaid and striped blankets, while others snapped the first of many photos of the Capitol dome, annoyed by the glare of its lights.

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.

Greg Packer, 51, broke his Yom Kippur fast last night and headed almost immediately for a Megabus—all without a ticket. Packer, who’s from Long Island, admires the pope’s simple lifestyle, and wandered near the lines early Thursday morning with a cardboard sign asking for an extra ticket in. Packer—it should be noted—is known for appearing at high-profile events like these, and giving copious quotes to the gathered press.

Fr. George Dunne, wearing pinstripes, trekked to D.C. from Winter Springs, Florida. He said he’s seen an enthusiasm in his congregation for this pope. Case in point: They have Francis’s cutout at the church, and he notes they didn’t have one for Popes Benedict or John Paul II.

By the 8 a.m. hour, the crowd had perked up, raising signs for the first time—a couple praising Francis’s position on the Armenian genocide, another asking for blessings for the town of Laredo, Texas—and bouncing to the band music outside the dome.

A young church group from the Diocese of Nashville seemed particularly peppy, even after a 12-hour journey from Tennessee and aspirations to venture home immediately after the pope finished speaking. When one of their senators was mentioned ahead of the pope’s address over the loudspeakers, they whooped and roared. In the minutes before Francis’s appearance, a few recited the Ave Maria in Latin (getting stuck, as is natural, on “mulieribus”).

From the moment Francis first appeared on the big-screen televisions making his way to the Capitol, the applause didn’t stop. Big praise was given—at various points—to Sen. Bernie Sanders; the states of Washington, New Mexico, and Texas; and the later part of Francis’s opening line: “I am most grateful for your invitation to address [Congress] in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’” His message to respect life and practice the “Golden Rule,” as well as his praise for the American immigrant experience, seemed to resonate with the crowd.

When Francis walked out onto the Speaker’s Balcony to acknowledge the West Lawn visitors, onlookers jostled for the perfect sightline, and for the perfect framing of their photos. As he spoke in Spanish—asking at one point for the crowd’s prayers—many didn’t need to wait to hear his British interpreter before reacting to the pontiff’s words.

Ayah Alkhafaji, 17, told National Journal that she was crying during his speech. Now a freshman at the Catholic University of America, Alkhafaji’s family is from Iraq, and the pope’s message of supporting Middle Eastern refugees moved her. What the pope says has wide-ranging consequences, and the potential of Francis’s words affecting real change was significant to her. “It’s breathtaking,” she said of her experience of watching the pope.

Mary Malloy, 63, and Michele White, 68, both of Somerset, N.J., said the audience itself was a sight to see, and not just because of its size. Seeing so many college students and people of immigrant heritage—there were various country flags dotting the crowd—was heartening for such a significant event.

“Our future,” White said.