Crowds gathering to greet pope

The Washington weather seems tailor-made for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the nation’s capital. Under a clear blue sky, on the grounds of The Catholic University of America, just east of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, crowds are beginning to form to see the pope when he passes by in his popemobile sometime before 5 p.m. today. And the national shrine is all decked out for his arrival, too, with a bright red carpet rolled out from the shrine’s east entrance and down the steps to the sidewalk.

But the carpet isn’t the only visible sign of preparations for the pope. Some days ago the shrine unfurled a welcome banner from its belltower bearing an image of the pope, his arms outstretched. Behind him is an image of the shrine’s dome and at the bottom is the theme of the trip, writ large: “Christ Our Hope.”

Right now inside the shrine, in the Upper Church, people are also beginning to gather, and not just the media. Originally the pope was going to take a private tour of the Upper Church, according to the shrine’s director of communications, Jacquelyn Hayes, but then an invitation was extended to employees of the shrine, the Washington Archdiocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to be on hand to greet the pope.

Hayes told the media the pope will walk up the center aisle and he will have a chance to see the shrine’s dome mosaics.

Before he goes to the Crypt Church, on the lower level of the shrine, to celebrate a solemn vespers service and deliver an address to 350 U.S. bishops, Pope Benedict will enter the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Upper Church for a silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Afterward, Msgr. Walter Rossi, the shrine’s rector, will lead the pope to the Oratory of Our Lady of Altotting, the patroness of Bavaria in the pope’s homeland, Germany. Hayes said the statue was dedicated three years ago today, and today is the pope’s 81st birthday. He’ll mark the third anniversary of his pontificate April 19.

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