Pope Francis waves to the crowd from his popemobile during a parade around the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, following at state arrival ceremony at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama. (Photo: AP)
Adoring crowds cheered Pope Francis through the streets of Washington on Wednesday as he rode in his open-sided popemobile from the White House following talks with President Barack Obama.
The 78-year-old Argentine-born pontiff -- moving slowly and flanked by security guards on foot -- waved to spectators and pointed, smiling to specific people in the crowd as he slowly made his way down Constitution Avenue.
"I'm just so excited to be here," declared a choked-up Millie Lober, 78, who travelled hundreds of miles from Illinois for Francis' first visit to the United States.
"He is a much needed leader in this world today, desperately needed. He is bringing to our attention the way we should be living more our Catholic faith with everyone, no matter what faith they are," said Lober.
The mood was festive and the weather perfect -- sunny in a nearly cloudless sky, with a cool breeze suggesting the first nip of autumn.
Children sat on their parents' shoulders or played in the grass during the long wait for Pope Francis in his white vestments to glide by for a few precious seconds.
Many in the crowd showed up before dawn to grab a spot in the shadow of the Washington Monument, with the stately White House visible in the near distance due north. As dawn broke, some dozed in sleeping bags.
Hawkers sold pope souvenirs of every kind -- T-shirts, badges, tote bags and posters -- giving the gathering somewhat the feel of a sporting event.
As the motorcade made its way alongside the National Mall, preceded by police motorcycle outriders and followed by helicopters overhead, crowds pressed up against metal barricades, waving US and yellow-and-white Vatican flags and screaming out greetings.
At one point a guard brought a baby from the crowd for Francis to kiss before the pope headed towards St Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington for a meeting with senior figures in the American Catholic Church.
The crowd in the streets was mixed, with curious tourists as well as worshipful pilgrims, but many of those who turned out were Hispanic Americans, who had come to cheer the first pope from their continent, with cries of "Viva el Papa!"
Filipino Americans were also out in strong numbers.
And the crowd were not just Catholics. Software salesman Bill Donahue said he is an Episcopalian, married to a Catholic and a regular at Sunday mass, but still impressed by the pope's spiritual message.
"He seems to be doing a good job of leading people to compassion," he told AFP. "His message is love."
Another well-wisher, 34-year-old Christine Kadambi, brought her four-year-old son to share in the parade. She was impressed that the pope had had an influence on US political debate.
"I like him," she said, praising the pope's mediation efforts that helped bring about the restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic ties.
"He's one of the only people who has ever got this government to do anything," Kadambi said. "So he's a pretty cool guy."