By Cathleen Falsani 9-23-2015

As Pope Francis’ motorcade made its way from the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C., late Tuesday afternoon, it made a hard left from scenic Rock Creek Parkway onto Massachusetts Avenue, wending its way northwestward at a fast clip along the manicured thoroughfare known as Embassy Row.

Riding in the passenger-side back seat of his tiny, black Fiat 500L, the 78-year-old pontiff leaned his body toward the open window, stuck his arm out, turned his smiling face toward the street, and waived at the modest clutches of pedestrians law enforcement had allowed to stand along the sidewalk to greet him as he whizzed by.

Along the way, Francis passed dozens of embassies representing nations from six of the world’s seven continents, a group of school kids with signs that read “Te Queremos Papa!,” and one lemonade stand where three boys from the neighborhood were selling cold drinks for $1.50 a cup.

(No, the pope didn’t stop the motorcade to buy a drink and a cookie. But he might have — he’s been known to make such unscheduled stops to visit with regular folks, the kind in whose company he seems far more comfortable than he does hobnobbing with heads of state or captains of industry. )

The pope rode past the South African embassy with its statue of Nelson Mandela, right arm raised in a fist of solidarity, out front — and then, almost directly across the street, the hulking statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill raising two fingers in a peace sign (or to hail a cab) at the southernmost end of the British Embassy’s sprawling grounds.

The Mandela and Churchill statues almost high-five each other across Massachusetts Avenue while the pope’s humble hatchback, surrounded by massive Secret Service SUVs and swarms of police motorcycles, passed beneath their outstretched arms.

I wonder if Francis noticed the statues, and thought of the men — so different from one another, but each remembered as a hero — and wondered what his own place in history might be.

Mandela — who, while eschewing any attempt to paint him as some sort of spiritual leader, nevertheless seemed to view the world and our role in it through a spiritual, if decidedly humanistic, lens.

“Our human compassion binds us to one another — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future,” he said.

Churchill — an Anglican who, revered as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, led then United Kingdom through World War II and into the Cold War.

“You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war … against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

If Churchill and Mandela were lions and hawks, the Argentine priest in the back seat of the Fiat is a dove.

Seconds after he drove past Madiba and Churchill, Francis would have passed one of the city’s true gems — the memorial garden honoring Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.

Dedicated by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, it was the first monument to an Arab-American on federal land in the District. Earlier in the day, as I walked toward the Vatican Embassy to await Pope Francis’ arrival, I ducked into the memorial garden to run my hands under the cool water of the fountain that bubbles beneath the bust of the poet and a magnificent rendering of a peacock.

The poet’s park is an unassuming, almost hidden sanctuary from the hubbub of the nation's capital. I stood in its embrace for a few moments before resuming my journey on foot to catch a glimpse of the pontiff during his very first hour ever in the United States.

While resting, I thought of something Gibran wrote about tenderness — a theme Francis frequently revisits (and did so again over the weekend in Cuba).

The poet wrote,

"Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”

Among the folks who lined Massachusetts Avenue, the atmosphere was one of surprise and elation. Most people couldn’t believe the pope was riding in the back seat of a car that was almost comically dwarfed by the security detail that surrounded it.

“He’s just so humble,” one woman gushed.

“No bulletproof glass, and the window was open!” another said in amused disbelief.

“I just love him.”

They felt like they could reach out and touch him. And frankly, were it not for the armed Secret Service officers, they probably could have.

In the coming days of Francis’ apostolic visit, if we pay close attention, we may learn a few things about the power of tenderness and kindness, the gift of presence, and the grace of the unexpected.

If I were one to wager, I’d bet the next time Papa Francesco passes a lemonade stand, he stops.

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author of several nonfiction books. She is co-host of the new audio magazine/podcast The Shwell. Follow her on Twitter @GodGrrl.

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