Pope Francis draws tens of thousands to U.S. capital



The U.S. awoke Wednesday to tens of thousands streaming into its capital before sun-up to see Pope Francis, arriving for security checks hours before he is to appear.

Francis’ agenda included a visit to the White House, with a meeting with President Barack Obama and a speech to 15,000 special guests on the White House lawn at a full state honours ceremony.

The 78-year-old pontiff is then scheduled to ride his popemobile in a parade around the Ellipse, a park adjoining the White House, so that those without tickets can catch a glimpse of the Catholic leader.

About 200,000 visitors are expected.

In the afternoon, Francis is due to attend a prayer service with 300 US bishops before leading the canonization mass for Franciscan friar Junipero Serra (1713-84), who founded nine missions in California.

No fewer than 25,000 people are expected at the canonization ceremony, to take place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Sunny weather was expected throughout the day of outdoor mass gatherings, and crowds were already making good use of it early Wednesday.

Thousands passed through three gates onto the Ellipse beginning at 4 a.m. (0800 GMT).

At the intersection of 15th and Constitution, they waited up to half an hour to filter through 12 metal detectors and faced as many as seven hours more until the popemobile’s arrival.

Vendors sold Vatican flags, rosaries, pens and T-shirts with the pope’s image and the slogan, “Love Is Our Mission” as one street preacher shouted proclamations that “the pope is not holy.”

The White House gates opened at 5 a.m. (0900 GMT) for the 15,000 guests holding tickets: nuns, Catholic schoolgirls in uniform and many others, all dressed in their Sunday best.

“There’s an opportunity for the citizens of this country to welcome him and show how warmly his message has been received in this country, by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

After a four-day visit to Cuba, Francis arrived Tuesday at a military airport outside the U.S. capital to begin his six-day tour of Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their families shook hands with Francis on the tarmac, along with a delegation of black-robed clergy from the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Francis then climbed into the back seat of a black Fiat 500L with an Italian license plate – an unusually humble car for a Washington motorcade – before his 30-minute, high-security drive to the Vatican embassy, the nunciature, to spend the night.

The White House has underlined Obama’s and Francis’ agreement on social issues – such as combating climate change and inequality – but Obama’s policies on abortion and same-sex marriage clash with Catholic doctrine.

Francis is the Vatican head of state, but the White House has stressed that their meeting is not a political event but rather a chance to emphasise shared values.

Even on issues on which the two leaders disagree, Obama holds “the pope and his views in high regard,” Earnest said.

Obama and Francis first met last year in Rome.

The Cuba-U.S. trip is the pope’s third this year, after he visited the Philippines in January and South America in July.

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