“Buenos días,” Pope Francis said to the thousands gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol. The crowd responded with an eruption of cheers and applause.
The greeting was the peak of the energy in the crowd that stood on the grass for several hours Thursday morning, waiting to be in the pontiff’s presence and hear his historic address to Congress.
Some began arriving at the Capitol at 4:30 a.m., before the security checkpoints opened, to score a spot at the front of the lawn. It was there that afforded the best view of the jumbotrons broadcasting the pope’s congressional address, and of Francis when he appeared on the Speaker’s Balcony after his speech to lawmakers.
Many more continued to arrive before the sun rose around 7 a.m., streaming to the Capitol from nearby Metro stations in the pitch-black darkness. Barricades, fences and scores of Capitol Police, Secret Service, and other federal officers directed the crowd to two checkpoints at the edge of the western edge of the reflecting pool. Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration agents checked bags as visitors went through the metal detectors — of which there were at least 20 at each checkpoint.
People with West Lawn tickets were told they’d be divided in half based on the ticket color (blue for Senate side and red for House side) but there was no such division Thursday morning, and everyone merged into one crowd on the lawn. A number came prepared with blankets so they could sit on the dewy grass, and brought food and water, as well as books to keep them occupied.
The Rev. Benjamin Garcia, 30, held a thick book titled, “New Testament Theology.” Garcia is with the Archdiocese of Washington. He is originally from Chile and said he hoped the pope would stress the importance of religious freedom.
“Everybody here, they’re not just wanting to get a glance of him. But it’s to hear his word,” Garcia said. “I think this is something … the pope is challenging every Christian to do, is disregard political colors and stop looking at people through their own eyes and colors, and try to accept them and love them the way they are.”
Garcia was one of the throngs of people who made it to the upper half of the lawn before Capitol Police closed off the entrance around 7 a.m., when it had reached capacity.
Forty eighth graders from an Indiana Catholic school also made it in under the wire. Some of the school trip’s leaders had arrived at 5:30 a.m. to lay down blankets and save spots for the children.
The kids from St. Mary’s in Crown Point, Ind., were excited to be able to see Francis, whose U.S. visit unexpectedly coincided with their annual D.C. trip. They were able to secure West Lawn tickets with help from Catholic Charities and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s office.
“So exciting,” exclaimed Anna Lamere, 13. “Rushing on adrenaline — this is so much fun!”
Some children from St. Mary’s broke into song as they waited for the pope to arrive at the Capitol, contributing to the relaxed atmosphere that permeated the sunny morning. At one point, a Capitol Police officer led a group off to the side in the wave as they waited for the pope.
Tamille Hawkins, 50, a D.C. resident, said being from this town, it is easy to get used to seeing important people. But with a pope, she said, it’s different.
“He’s not someone you normally see,” she said.
Sporting a white T-shirt featuring the face of Pope Francis near the back of the crowd, Hawkins said she made a point to see the last pope when he came to Washington. She liked both popes, but said Francis’ message was a “welcome change.”
“He seems pleasant and fun,” Hawkins said. “I couldn’t imagine [Pope] Benedict in a Fiat,” she added, referring to Francis’ modest mode of transportation during his time in D.C.
When the small black Fiat rolled onto the East Front of the Capitol, those on the West Lawn started to applaud, and watched as three jumbotrons facing the lawn, in addition to two others angled to the side, broadcast the pope’s arrival.
Then it was more waiting as the pope met privately with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. Though Francis met with and addressed lawmakers, many among the masses on the West Lawn believed his message extended beyond the House chamber.
“He is here for the people more than the politicians,” said Alex Nathan, 37, who held a large Argentinian flag. “He wants to show us an example of who he is and what the religion is. … I don’t think he is here for the politics.”
In addition to the thousands standing on the grass on the West Lawn, special guests of congressional leaders and lawmakers also sat on the Upper West Front Terrace, beneath the Speaker’s Balcony.
There were a few VIPs in attendance, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. There were also many House and Senate aides, including a large contingent from the office of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
During the pope’s congressional address, those on the West Terrace and on the lawn stood quietly, listening. The spectators on the lawn tented their hands over their eyes to see the big screens, and clapped with members of Congress at various points throughout the speech.
The crowd muttered an “oh” of surprise when Francis addressed his opposition to the death penalty, and applauded when he spoke about the importance of strengthening families, addressing climate change, combating extremism and abiding by the “golden rule.”
The spectators grew more energetic as the pope made his way to the Speaker’s Balcony to appear before them. Chants of “Papa!” were heard throughout the crowd.
When he appeared, hands went in the air, holding smartphones to take pictures and waving. Selfie sticks were banned from the event, but one spectator fashioned a stick out of poster board and hoisted a go-pro camera in the air to capture the moment.
On the West Front Terrace, some were spotted positioning themselves with their backs turned so they could capture images of themselves and the pontiff in the same shot.
Spectators waved and cheered when Francis appeared, flanked by Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.; Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas; and Senate President Pro Tem Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah; along with Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.; and Scalise. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was also on hand.
Francis, speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English, said the most important people on the West Lawn below him were “the children,” prompting an emotional Boehner to wipe tears from his eyes with a handkerchief stored in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Pelosi crossed herself several times.
The masses bowed their heads as the pope blessed them, though one man shouted at the pope, imploring him to “bless the children in the womb!”
After the pope departed, the crowd headed for the exits on Third Street, though some milled around the lawn to take pictures, have a snack and discuss the speech.
“It was unbelievable,” Ines Bueno, 44, said of the pope’s address. “He knows exactly what to say. And he uses the words of god when he addresses all of us. I really hope that Congress and all the representatives were able to understand his message, which was love and tender that we have to use with each other.”
Bueno came to the speech with a contingent from the Archdiocese of Miami, Fla., which was one of the groups chanting in Spanish as the pope, who is from Argentina, made his way to the Speaker’s Balcony.
“Se ve! Se siente! Papa esta presente!” they chanted. Bueno explained they were exclaiming, “We can see it, we can feel it.”
“He’s here,” she translated. “He’s present.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.