WASHINGTON – Even some of the bishops were in the standing-room sections on the South Lawn of the White House waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive.
With about 13,500 people in the invitation-only crowd, more guests were left to stand for the official welcome by President George W. Bush than were able to get a seat in the bleachers set up for the ceremony. Fewer still got an actual folding chair for their wait of as long as three hours for the ceremony to begin.
It was their first visit to the White House, said some of the arriving U.S. bishops, dressed in the formal cassocks common around the Vatican, but rarely seen in official Washington. As they were escorted from their buses past the West Wing and the press room, they asked what parts of the building they were passing, seeming a little awed by the surroundings.
The escorted busloads of bishops were interspersed with groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and Knights of Columbus, each of whom were put in sections of the lawn where they could see well, but had to stand for the duration.
Even members of Congress were relegated to standing-room areas where their lines of sight to the podium were limited at best.
“Welcome, pope of hope” and “We love you, pope of hope” read signs carried by small children in Easter clothes who sat on the grass near their mother. A third sign had a hand-drawn picture of a birthday cake with “81” written on it. A few feet away Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., craned their necks to see the stage.
For the bright, cool spring day, the White House was bedecked with flags and flowers. Giant yellow tulips bloomed from gardens and pots on the balconies and steps. Flags of all 50 states competed for space with the Vatican’s yellow and white flag and the U.S. stars and stripes.
Though the ceremony itself was brief, the long morning took a toll on some of the participants. Several Girl Scouts, standing at attention for more than an hour, drooped, then fainted, to be caught by watchful Marines.
When the third Scout went down, White House aides scurried to the remaining girls with bottles of water.
As the pope and the president moved inside for a private meeting, the thousands of guests lingered, snapping photos of each other with the White House as a backdrop. As he worked his way back to the buses that carried the bishops away, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said he thought the president sounded “exactly Catholic” while the pope sounded “exactly American” in the way they captured important themes.
Paired with beautiful weather he said was God’s contribution to the events, Archbishop Chaput said “it was a perfect morning.”