WASHINGTON – Thousands of Americans – not all of them Catholic – filled the South Lawn of the White House for the April 16 arrival ceremony welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the White House.
They rearranged schedules on short notice and got up earlier than usual, in some cases a lot earlier than usual, to meet all the security requirements for Pope Benedict’s first U.S. visit as pontiff.
Suzanne Wallace of Alexandria, Va., got a South Lawn ticket courtesy of her daughter, Kathryn, who works in the White House as general counsel in its Office of Administration. Kathryn Wallace was on hand, too, gently reminding her mother to have a snack during a wait that lasted up to three hours for some.
Herself a Catholic, Suzanne Wallace volunteers at the White House, answering telephones. “Today was supposed to be my day to answer the phones,” she told Catholic News Service during the long wait. “But they closed the phones today. That shows you how important this is.”
She said she’s been to other White House welcoming ceremonies, including the one for Queen Elizabeth II. “But this is even more exciting,” Wallace said.
A group of 20 girls from Connelly School of the Holy Child, an all-girls Catholic school for grades six to 12, hopped on a 6 a.m. bus from their school in Potomac, Md., to take part in the ceremony. Their tickets came from Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., whose daughter attends the school.
To help kill time during the wait, some students studied for a biology test they were to take late that day, and later played a memory-challenge game called Concentration.
“We have to wait three hours. It’s really cold,” said Maria Leyva, a 15-year-old freshman, at around 7:30 a.m., three hours before the ceremony’s scheduled start. “We have to wear our spring uniforms,” she added, which included a yellow skirt that did not offer bare legs much protection from the early-morning chill.
But as the ceremony’s start neared, crowd members began to shield their eyes and faces from the heightening sun. Students at another all-girls Catholic high school, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., were trying to doff outer layers of clothing without unduly jostling the squeezed-in crowd.
Beth Dorn, 17, a Stone Ridge junior, eventually wrapped her sweater around her shoulders. She said Stone Ridge seniors were offered April 17 papal Mass tickets, and juniors April 16 South Lawn tickets, by a lottery system.
Dr. Robert Saxer, a consultant to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and past president of the Catholic Medical Association, said he hoped his 76-year-old legs would hold out. He made the trip from Walton Beach, Fla., to attend the South Lawn ceremony. “We probably have as many people in our town as are here on the South Lawn,” he told CNS.
The White House estimated the crowd at 13,500, saying it was the largest event at the White House during President George W. Bush’s tenure.
It also marked the second time a pope had visited the White House. President Jimmy Carter welcomed Pope John Paul II to the White House in 1979.
Ben Cassidy of Washington said he only found out at 10:50 p.m. the night before the ceremony that someone who had offered tickets to people who couldn’t use them was able to get the tickets reauthorized in the name of Mr. Cassidy and his friend, Emily Zammit of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Zammit, who was busy using her cell phone during much of the CNS interview, apologized. “It’s just all so exciting,” she said.
Cell phone and camera use was very much in evidence throughout the South Lawn. When President Bush appeared, there was one upsurge in raised cell phones and cameras. But once some spotted Pope Benedict, a massive increase in hoisted cameras and phones could be noted. “There he is! There he is!” “I can see him!” “I can’t see him!” “Where is he?” “He’s there!” “There he is!”
The ceremony itself, compared to the waits endured by the crowd, was brief. Obvious highlights included the president’s and pope’s remarks, and two renditions of “Happy Birthday” for Pope Benedict – one impromptu, one led by opera star Kathleen Battle – as the pope turned 81. Battle also sang Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a version using Protestant wording but made popular decades ago by Catholic vocalist Perry Como.
Yet it was all worth it to those who were there.
“At least you could hear the words even if you couldn’t see the faces,” said Cal Barriden, who works for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “It was great. And you couldn’t pick a better day,” Mr. Barriden added, alluding to the sunny morning.
Joan McKenna of Boston, a member of the board of trustees of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, could have snared one of 750 or so grandstand spots on the South Lawn, but standing most of the morning suited her just fine.
“It was well worth it,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a Catholic today.”