WASHINGTON -- I'm up at 4:30 this morning to make sure I get to Nationals Park before the Secret Service closes the security magnetometers at 8:15 a.m. for the papal Mass.
The Green Line Metro train is packed with happy, smiling faces – a rare sight at 6 o'clock in the morning. One of those smiles belongs to 14-year-old Emma Rebura of Kensington, Md., who's on her way to the Mass with her mother.
"It's just such a blessing to be able to see our pope from Rome, to celebrate the Mass with him," Emma tells me. "It's a memory I'll keep forever."
Arriving at the stadium, I breeze through the security mags and am inside by 6:15 a.m., with two hours to spare. I decide to check out one of the souvenir stands. Pope t-shirts go for $20, "Beautiful Matted Art" for $10 and rosary rings for $5. I buy my sister-in-law a pope coffee mug for $10.
On the stadium concourse I meet Wendy Hodge of Huntsville, Ala. She's a 20-something member of the Papal Mass Choir. I ask her what she hopes the pope accomplishes on his visit to America.
"I hope he helps America strengthen its resolve to stay true to the church and not fall into the traps of worldly ways," Hodge says.
The sexual abuse scandal, of course, looms over the pope's visit. I ask John Tieger, 64, of Germantown, Md., whether the pope is adequately addressing the scandal.
"He hasn't said much about it or really addressed it fully, no," says Tieger, an employee of the Washington Archdiocese.
Patty Hanko, 51, of Calvert County, Md., disagrees.
"I think he's doing a great job," Hanko says. "It's not his fault. It's not the Catholic Church's fault. It's the individual's fault."
|Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images|
|Nuns move through the crowd at National Park ahead of the papal mass Thursday in Washington.|
I find an empty seat above the VIP section. Senators Dodd, Kerry and Kennedy walk by. The stadium slowly fills with the faithful. At 9:33 a.m., Pope Benedict arrives in his pope-mobile; 46,000 Catholics rise and cheer and wave tiny Vatican flags.
Shortly into the two-hour Mass, the Pope again apologizes for the sex abuse scandal.
"No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," he says. "It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention."
After the Mass is over, I ask Irene Senos, 22, of Falls Church, Va., if the Catholic Church will ever be able to put the sex scandal behind it.
"I think it will take some time," she says, "but I think we're making progress, and with the Holy Father really commenting that this is a problem, that will definitely make the bishops respond more than they might have in the past."
Whatever happens, the pope himself is apparently a big hit.
"Pope Benedict was so inspiring and loving," Ruth Froehling, 35, also of Falls Church, says. "Everything was wonderful, a wonderful experience."
Judging from all the smiles, 46,000 others agree.