At 7 a.m. on the morning of Pope Benedict’s birthday, April 16, the Knights of Columbus in full regalia were practicing their marches on the Pennsylvania Avenue Square in front of the Old Executive Office Building and the White House.
Their audience included a collection of Catholic Boy and Girl Scouts, cops on bicycles, Secret Service agents with severe faces and ear phones, and the first arrivals of what was to become the largest reception ever at the White House.
The White House says that 13,500 people attended the event, dwarfing the previous record of 7,000. It included a phenomenal range of Catholics from around the nation. Cardinals and bishops, publishers, donors and diocesan staffers, Catholic Charities officials educators, theologians, authors and hundreds of Catholic school children.
Visitors were separated – like the sheep and the goats – into red tickets and purple tickets. Red ticket holders were allowed to sit in the three bleachers set up for the occasion. Purple ticket holders stood for up to four hours.
Tiny American and Vatican flags were handed out to some attendees, and bottles of water were distributed freely. It was hot under the beautiful Washington sky.
The line to enter the White House grounds stretched all the way to Constitution Avenue, and attendees constantly greeted others who they recognized making their way to the back of the line, back where the Army had stationed howitzers for a 21-gun salute to the Pope.
Every item was searched and every person went through a metal detector before entering the South Lawn.
Those in the bleachers were afforded a clear, if distant, view of the proceedings. They in turn were watched by security personnel on the roof of the White House, the porches, and among the crowds. The purple ticket people stood on tip toes and did their best to watch the proceedings from the lawn.
At 10:25, the Pope pulled up in a black limousine, and was greeted by President George W. Bush and his wife.
After respective anthems, a drum and fife corps and a beautiful version of the Lord’s Prayer sung by Kathleen Battle, President Bush paid eloquent tribute to the Pope.
His words must have caused more than a few anti-Catholic preachers back in Texas to have heart palpitations. The President referred to him as “Holy Father,” and described him as “ascending the Chair of St. Peter.” He even quoted St. Augustine.
Pope Benedict returned the favor by quoting the Farewell Address of President George Washington.
Most revealing was the fact that the President’s speech was very similar to the Pope’s in its use of Natural Law, its stress on respect for life and the necessity to protect the weakest and most innocent, and the responsibilities that came with freedom.
One Catholic academic said afterward he had “waited my whole life” for that scene: A pope and a president making the same points, identifying the same problems and endorsing the same moral foundation.
The entire proceedings ran like clockwork, and after a final round of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd, the Pope and the President disappeared inside the White House. Attendees then took turns celebrating their own presence at the event, snapping numerous pictures with the White House as the backdrop.
Almost reluctantly the crowd eased out onto the side streets near the White House, only to get caught again in the throngs of people waiting for a glimpse of the popemobile when Benedict left the White House and returned to the Nunciature.
While hawkers sold Pope tee-shirts and pennants, Catholic young people, many of them Hispanic and many of them from the Neo-Catechumenal Way, played Catholic music and sang. Nearby were various anti-Catholic demonstrators. One man with a bullhorn berated Catholics and the Pope. His sign attacked Romanism, but a polite team of Neo-Catechumenate students hoisted their banner nearby, blocking the view of the anti-Catholic message so that the Pope would not see it.
Other anti-Catholics handed out bigoted tracts accusing the Church of being responsible for wars and death and disaster. Some attacked the expense of the papal trip. One particularly offensive sign accused the Pope of being a worse terrorist than Osama Bin Ladin.
Finally, the roar of police motorcycles heralded the arrival of the popemobile. Officeworkers lining the roofs of nearby buildings and families on the sidewalks all craned their necks to see the Pope as he passed by. Seated on a chair in the glass box that is on the rear of the popemobile, he smiled and waved, and then was gone.
One young boy who had been standing on a post waiting for the moment looked at his father and said, “Is that all? Is that what we were waiting for since 11?”
But most people seemed satisfied by this glimpse of the humble Bavarian theologian who now is shepherd to one billion souls. The barriers came down, the police moved on, and most people began retuning to work or set out to find lunch.
-- Greg Erlandson