'Awesome' pope unites diverse Washington crowd

Anne Renaut and Sebastien Blanc
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Pope Francis greets well-wishers as he leaves the Apostolic Nunciature on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC

Pope Francis greets well-wishers as he leaves the Apostolic Nunciature on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Molly Riley)

Washington (AFP) - Pope Francis may be a hero to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics but a far broader section of American society -- young, old, devout or just plain curious -- came out to catch a glimpse of him in Washington.

On his historic first visit to the United States, Francis brought parts of the capital to a standstill on Wednesday and Thursday, as tens of thousands jostled amiably to see the 78-year-old Argentine.

Some were devout Roman Catholics, but plenty more were eager onlookers or people touched by the pope's appeal for a more just world. Young and old mingled together.

Many in the prominent Hispanic community hailed the pope's "simplicity" and hoped he could highlight the sensitive issue of immigration -- a hot-button topic in American politics in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

The theme burst into view on Wednesday as a little girl managed to slip past security and deliver a missive to the pontiff urging him to press for legalization of America's millions of undocumented migrants.

Mario Alfaro, 43, originally from Salvador but who has been in the United States for more than 20 years, said hoped Francis would address the migrant issue in Congress -- as he did on Thursday -- "so it will give the new immigrants the same chance to be part of this great nation."

Alfaro praised the pope's ability to engage a diverse audience, be it on immigration or climate change -- another central theme of his visit.

"Some people have different views about marriage, climate, migrants. Instead of separating them or pushing them away, this pope tries to talk to them, to have a dialogue."

- 'Doesn't judge' -

Security around the pope -- the first from Latin America -- has been understandably tight.

But that did not stop some of his admirers getting at the very least a sight of him -- for a few in person and many more via big screens.

For some, that fleeting moment was enough.

Thousands cheered as Francis appeared on a balcony of the US Capitol following his historic speech to Congress and blessed the crowd, especially children.

"Buenos dias," Francis said, eliciting another roar from the crowd, some of whom wore t-shirts adorned with his picture. Others clutched the yellow-and-white Vatican flag or posters bearing his smiling face.

He was similarly mobbed as he walked through crowds during a visit to Charities of the Archdiocese in downtown Washington.

Some snapped pictures with their phones -- a lucky few grabbed a quick selfie -- and many more from all walks of life tried in vain to shake the pope's hand.

At the famed National Mall, in the heart of Washington, thousands more massed to rally for "climate justice," drawing an eclectic mix of entertainers, including gospel singers and the electronic music artist Moby.

The crowd took in environmentalists, black rights defenders, pastors and animal rights defenders, all thrown in together.

There was also room for dissent -- one protester wielded a huge sign proclaiming: "The pope is the antichrist."

Back at the Capitol, Nick Redmond, a seminarian holding a rosary, concurred with the pope's message to Congress, praising his ability to articulate the Church's plea for "mercy, love, respect for human life."

Dinora Orozco Vedadi, 28, born in the United States to Mexican parents, said she was of Catholic origin but admitted she did not go to church.

Nevertheless, she called his message about compassion for immigrants "awesome."

"He is someone more conservative about family, but he doesn't judge, doesn't marginalize, he is more bringing people into the fold," she said.