WASHINGTON -- The "people's pope" Wednesday reached out of his popemobile and touched a few of the tens of thousands gathered to witness the pontiff's historic motorcade through the streets of the nation's capital.
Though shielded from the public by metal barricades, heavy security presence, and the bulletproof glass of his white Jeep Wrangler, within seconds of departing the White House after a morning visit with President Barack Obama, Pope Francis stopped the papal parade on Constitution Avenue to kiss a baby carried over to him by a beaming worshipper.
Moments later, the pope, smiling and squinting under the bright sunlight, halted the procession again as he watched police escort away a little girl who had crossed the barricades. He gestured to a security team member to bring the girl to him, hugged her, and accepted a letter and shirt as gifts from her.
Former Long Islander Pam Farrell, among a group of four filing out of the parade area, was overjoyed at having caught a glimpse of the pontiff.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Farrell, a former Seaford resident now living in Olney, Maryland. "I feel really blessed."
It lasted only a few moments, but the pope's arrival along the Ellipse -- where a throng had gathered since before dawn -- caused a frenzy. People stood on barricade railings trying to get pictures of the pope as he rode by.
Diana Zottman, an attorney from Seattle who came to D.C. just to see Francis, said, "It's worth it."
She wasn't sure she had captured a picture of him and had to brave being squeezed by the crowd pressing forward, but she said she wouldn't trade the experience.
"It was exciting, but too short," she said. "And a test of human survival."
Earlier in the day, with the Washington Monument looming in the background, multitudes of people waited in line to get screened at metal detectors.
The legions of adoring followers -- many of whom had walked along the capital's dark streets before sunrise for a chance to see Francis -- represented different states, parishes and even beliefs. Amanda Possoby, 36, of Annapolis, Maryland, came as a tribute to her late father, Michael Possoby Jr., a devout Catholic.
As someone who grew up Catholic but has since fallen away from the faith, Possoby said Francis was "starting to inspire me" to return to practicing Catholicism. She said Francis represented "unity, peace and I would also say love."
Her friend Tony Teano, also from Annapolis, said he was raised Catholic but left the church when he was told, "I would go to hell for being gay."
He said he believed Pope Francis represents "a shift in the tone of the papacy."
"I'm here out of hope that the church will grow and change and embrace everybody in increased love," Teano said.
After transferring to his signature Fiat sedan, Pope Francis arrived at his destination, a special prayer service with about 300 American bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.
Several clergymen reverently kissed the pope's hand and presented him with an original painting depicting the saints who were born or served in the United States, and a monetary gift to help with Francis' charity work.
Before the pope arrived along the parade route, Cecilia Khoo of Rockville, Maryland, put her book away and stood.
"I've never been in proximity to a pope before," she said, explaining why she came to the parade route.
"I'm a Catholic myself," said Khoo, a native of Singapore. "I'm here to honor my God. He's a man . . . but he's an instrument of God. He speaks of peace and unity. I think that's important for the world."
A Catholic family from Charlotte, North Carolina, John and Jacquie Stevens and their four children, relaxed on blankets about 25 feet from the closest vantage point adjacent to the street, awaiting the pope's arrival. "Not bad," Jacquie Stevens said of her family's spot.
Through their church parish at home, Jacquie Stevens said, they got tickets to watch the pope's address Thursday to Congress outside on Capitol grounds.
"It's pretty big," she said, especially for the children, who are ages 12, 10, 8 and 6.
Jacquie Stevens said Francis is "just a pope for everybody. He draws everybody, even if you're not Catholic. He welcomes everybody."