Pope Benedict is in Washington, marking his first visit to the United States since he was elected pope three years ago. As he left the White House in his first motorcade, the pontiff received a warm welcome from a crowd of thousands. VOA's Alex Villarreal reports.

Celebrating his 81st birthday in Washington, Pope Benedict XVI greeted thousands of screaming devotees lined up to see him along Pennsylvannia Avenue.

The pontiff waved to the crowd from his Popemobile, a custom-built white Mercedes-Benz with a bullet-proof chamber to shield the pope as he stands for people to see him.

Many of the onlookers were Catholics, some of whom traveled thousands of miles just to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict.

Elizabeth Puccio brought her family all the way from California. "We are very happy to be here and to bring our children so that they will remember this day, that Pope Benedict is celebrating his birthday with us, and what an honor because he could have chos[en] another country," she said.

Many, like Mary Beth LaDuca of Rochester, New York, hold high hopes that the pontiff's visit will help revive the American Catholic community. The scandal that erupted several years ago involving sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergymen has forced the removal of hundreds of priests and cost the church at least two billion dollars since 1950, the majority since 2002.

"I have two boys that go to Catholic school and they're closing more than half of the schools in our hometown, and it really hurts and we don't understand it, and you know, I hope that the Pope and the bishops can really stress the importance of Catholic education these days," she said.

Not everyone is happy about the pope's visit. Activists gathered earlier this week to protest against the sex abuse cases that have rocked the church in recent years and urge the pope to do more for the victims. Eighteen-year-old Juan Cruz said he and the group of more than 100 Catholic youth he traveled with had come to lend their voices against the negativity. "We're here to say that we are here, Catholics are here to stay."

Before making his way onto the street, Pope Benedict met with President Bush at the White House, where a crowd of thousands, including U.S. dignitaries, nuns and priests, welcomed him with a ceremony. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be in Washington until Friday when he is set to travel to New York.