WASHINGTON – At 5:21 a.m., the disc jockey on a country music radio station in Fredericksburg, Va. – 50 miles south of Washington – invited listeners to join her in singing “Happy Birthday” to Pope Benedict XVI.
On the South Lawn of the White House, dignitaries, bishops and guests joined in an impromptu rendition of the song.
Pope Benedict celebrated his 81st birthday in Washington April 16 and heard “Happy Birthday” numerous times. He also ate a birthday luncheon of special Italian fare with U.S. cardinals and received some uncommon gifts from Catholic school students.
The pope, who was staying at the Vatican Embassy while in Washington, was greeted by Catholic school students in a private ceremony at the embassy before the official start to the second day of his April 15-20 pastoral visit to the U.S.
A choir from Annunciation School in Washington greeted the Bavarian-born pope, singing “Happy Birthday” in German and “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant Us Peace”).
After the pope attended the White House ceremony in the morning, he returned to the nunciature for a birthday luncheon with U.S. cardinals, officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the papal entourage. The lunch, featuring Italian cuisine, was catered by a Washington Italian restaurant, Cafe Milano.
The menu was prepared by the Fabio Salvatore, the restaurant’s executive chef, who was joined at the nunciature with 23 others in preparing the meal. Prior to the luncheon, Mr. Salvatore kept the menu top secret, but he told Catholic News Service he was making a special pasta dish based on a family recipe created by his grandmother.
“The dish is not easy to make. It requires fresh vegetables which are currently in season. The dish would have been otherwise impossible to create” if the pope had come at any other time of the year, he said.
Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Chicago Tribune a few days prior to the luncheon that he intended to toast the Holy Father at the event and tell him he was glad “God has called you to this role for all of us.”
“We’re grateful for the man he is and the family that nurtured him,” he added.
Later that afternoon, in a private ceremony at the Vatican Embassy, the pope was to receive birthday gifts from Catholic school students.
The gifts reflected what the pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, requested on behalf of the pontiff last year for his 80th birthday. At the time, the papal secretary said the pope did not want to accept personal gifts from the faithful and suggested that those who wanted to give something could make an offering that the pope could use for special church or humanitarian causes.
That’s just what he was to receive from Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association and three Catholic school students.
Ms. Ristau, along with Kristina Wilson, a junior at St. John’s College High School in Washington, and Stephanie Joy Heredia, an eighth-grade student at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church, Va., were to present the pope with a birthday card indicating the pledges of more than 1.7 million hours of community service submitted by students in Catholic schools, parish religious education programs, colleges and seminaries in honor of the pope’s birthday.
Jennifer Sharkey, an eighth-grade student at St. Jane de Chantal School in Bethesda, Md., planned to give the pope a card telling him of the more than 100,000 bags of food Catholics collected in the Washington Archdiocese for area food banks in the honor of his birthday. The “Hunger to Hope Food Drive” was coordinated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Although the pope was not able to attend a White House dinner held in his honor because he was meeting with U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the White House kitchen was to serve Bavarian-style food to a guest list that included Catholic leaders in Washington specifically for the pope’s visit.
Across the city at the Italian Embassy, Placido Domingo was to perform in honor of the pope’s 81 years.
The birthday bash was not to end there. In New York, Catholics planned to continue to commemorate the pope’s birthday. Participants at an April 19 youth rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary planned a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in German for the pontiff.
Birthday greetings extended to the pope included a message from Queen Elizabeth II who said, “I have much pleasure in sending my warmest felicitations to your holiness, along with my prayers and best wishes for a serene and peaceful future.”