Stretching from the Southeast gate of the White House around the corner to Constitution Avenue, a line of people from as far away as California began forming at 7:00AM yesterday. They were among the 12,000 people who greeted Pope Benedict XVI on the South Lawn of the White House at his official welcome after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday afternoon.
Despite suggestions that the naturally quiet, more reserved Pope Benedict XVI would not draw the same crowds as his beloved predecessor, the Holy Father’s first day in the capital city proved something different.
Crowds here turned out in number, consistent with the huge numbers of people who flock to St. Peter’s in Rome weekly to hear the soft spoken but deeply learned leader of the Catholic Church.
“People like him,” one man in the crowd told me. “He’s more understandable than John Paul II.”
While only 600 individuals were allowed into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to pray vespers ahead of the Holy Father’s meeting with the Catholic Bishops of the United States last night, 11,000 ticketed guests gathered outside hours ahead of the popemobile and thousands more lined the streets surrounding the basilica.
None had the privilege of hearing him speak — the hours of waiting were simply to catch a glimpse of him in person, on American soil.
“It’s a gift of God to be here,” said Dr. Steven Brust, an adjunct professor of Political Science at Catholic University. “I hope people will come to know the love of Christ in his Church through this visit.”
Renata Grzan, an iconographer and artist from Laurel, Maryland said, “He is the vicar of Christ, a tangible sign of Christ’s presence — especially this week that began with Good Shepherd Sunday. This is a once-in-an-lifetime thing to envision: He came all the way from Rome to see us. To see me.”
A young mariachi band drove sixteen hours on a bus from Chicago City, Indiana to stand across the street from the Basilica and serenade the pope with a traditional birthday greeting. The excited youth, aged 14 to 20, staked out their position by noon, more than five hours before the pope drove past.
Inevitably, of course, many harken back to the years of John Paul II, a champion of youth and a charismatic spiritual leader who inspired with his bold, outgoing manner. Pope Benedict instills a different feeling. His voice is soft and his presence gentle, and his words require careful attention and reflection.
“I don’t feel a personal connection yet to Pope Benedict,” said Donna O’Hare of Great Falls, Virginia. “I don’t feel like he is the great communicator in the same way as John Paul.”
But, she added, “His message of hope is something we need. He conveys something important about the goodness of people, even despite the terrible things that happen in this world.”
Andrea Delaney, also from Great Falls, said even her teenage children are “thirsty” for the message of hope Pope Benedict brings. “We’re all used to smooth talkers, but the pope is smart. I see in my kids that they’re also searching — they see so much going on in the world. He makes us think. It’s not about charisma or personality.”
Monsignor Philip Lowry, Chaplain to the New Jersey State police and pastor of St. James Church in Redbank New Jersey said, ”The Pope’s presence cannot be underestimated. Today, the Vicar of Christ is present in the United States, speaking to all of us. Hopefully, undoubtedly, his presence brings a healing dimension.”