Reflections on My Visit to the White House to See Pope Benedict XVI
by Christopher Dodson
It seemed like an odd way to receive an invitation to the
White House -- an e-mail message with no mention of my name
or the time of the event. But a little research revealed
the invitation's legitimacy. I had received an invitation
to the arrival ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI during his
historic visit to the United States.
The event took place on the White House south lawn on a
beautiful spring day. The White House issued different
types of tickets with different seating or standing
assignments and different entry times. We had to arrive
early. Government security had to clear an estimated 12,000
people for one of the largest events in White House
The size of the crowd gave me mixed feelings. On the one
hand, the large numbers of invitees reflected the
significance of the event and the importance President Bush
placed on this second-ever visit of a pope to the White
House. On the other hand, would I be able to see anything
in the midst of such a large crowd? As it turned out, I had
"center seated viewing," which meant not only that I had a
seat, but also that it was on a bleacher. I did not have to
strain to see over people in front of me. Most of the
attendees -- including the bishops -- had to stand for the
event and the two or so hours prior.
It seemed as though the White House pulled out all the
stops for this official state visit. A full color guard,
the Marine Band, the Army Chorus, the Old Guard Fife and
Drum Corps, and a host of dignitaries greeted the Holy
Father. The crowd waved papal and U.S. flags. The band
played the national anthems of both the Holy See and the
United States, joined by a 21-gun salute. Kathleen Battle,
a soprano from Ohio, sang the Lord's Prayer, accompanied
only by a harp that shone in the spring sunshine.
welcomed Pope Benedict, acknowledging him as the successor
to the "Chair of Saint Peter." He spoke of how we need the
Holy Father's message that God is love, that all human life
is sacred, that we need to embrace a culture of justice and
truth, and that true liberty requires us to live our
freedom "not just for ourselves, but in a spirit of mutual
The Holy Father praised the United States' commitment to
moral truths, religious belief, and freedom to worship.
Invoking George Washington and Pope John Paul II, he spoke
of the importance of liberty in addressing injustice here
and abroad and how true liberty must always be rooted in
religious and moral truth. He finished with a jubilant "God
bless America." It was, as the President was overhead to
say, an "awesome speech."
Three musical parts of the ceremony stood out for me. First
was the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. This small unit with
instruments and uniforms from the colonial period presented
the "troop in review" for the Holy Father. It was simple,
majestic, and very moving. The Army Chorus concluded the
official ceremony with a rendition of the "Battle Hymn of
the Republic." The stirring choir, the joyful singing of
the crowd, and the waving of hundreds of U.S. and Papal
flags combined for an unforgettable moment.
Following the official ceremony, the President and Pope
Benedict walked up to the balcony. The band and choir then
led the crowd of thousands in singing "Happy Birthday" to
the Holy Father, who turned 81 that day. The pope seemed
Looking out from White House balcony, beyond the
dignitaries, bishops, bands, and thousands of onlookers
waving flags of red, white, and blue, and gold and white,
Pope Benedict would have seen the Washington Monument.
In 1854, the monument was only partially constructed when
Pope Pius IX sent a 2000 year-old marble block as gift to
aid its construction. Anti-Catholic sentiment at the time
was so intense that a gang stole and destroyed the block.
An anti-Catholic group immediately took control of the
organization overseeing the monument's construction, intent
on making sure that "papists" did not stain the American
monument. Funding and progress on the monument stopped and
was not resumed until 1879. To this day, visitors can see a
difference in color between the blocks erected before and
after 1854. That "color line" stands as a permanent
reminder of the ugly anti-Catholicism in our nation's
Now, less than one-half mile from that scene of past
intolerance, I watched the successor of Peter receive an
unprecedented welcome from the President of the United
States before an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. I felt
blessed to be a Catholic. I felt proud to be an American.
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