It was the biggest event in the history of the White House, with over 13,000 people forming a line that snaked for over a quarter of a mile down 15th Street and onto Constitution Avenue. Benedict XVI was in town, and President George W. Bush was giving him his 81st birthday party on the South Lawn.
Men and women from around the nation who normally attend Mass in khakis or slacks looked like good Presbyterians as they patiently shuffled down the sidewalks in their coats, ties, and dresses. There were no grumpy complaints about waiting, no airport hustling to cut in at the head of the line.
These were not the typical grim Washington faces with ears stuck to cell phones or looking down at thumbs punching Blackberries. These were happy and expectant faces — faces ready to see the head of the Catholic Church stand beside an Evangelical President on a gorgeous spring day in the nation’s capitol.
The president was announced and took the podium. But as the Holy Father came forward the crowd began spontaneously singing “Happy Birthday.” There was quite a contrast between the smiling but official manner of Bush and the grinning, almost casual, face of Benedict XVI doing his best to manage his wind-blown white robes.
The president’s mispronunciation of St. Augustine’s dictum “pace tecum” (‘peace be with you”) went unnoticed, because its meaning so obviously pervaded the South Lawn. But when the Protestant setting of the Lord’s Prayer was powerfully sung by Kathleen Battle, several of the spectators, including myself, looked at each other in amazement at the choice of hymns. Where was “Ave Maria” or any other choice that would have made sense to a pope whose taste in music in notoriously particular?
The all-male version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the end of the ceremony more than made up for the middlebrow “Lord’s Prayer.” The stunning four-part arrangement and performance had many in the crowd wiping their eyes as His Holiness clearly showed his enjoyment of the all-American hymn. As a paean to the determination of Americans to fight in the defense of their freedom, it was the perfect companion to the pope’s reminder that:
America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator.
Standing there I couldn’t help but think how far this country has come since 1928 when the campaign train of Gov. Al Smith was routinely welcomed at towns across the South with the burning crosses of the KKK. Over thirty years later, the candidacy of John F. Kennedy was publicly opposed on religious grounds by Protestant ministers as mainstream as the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale.
Catholics, who were not welcome in the original American colonies, except for Maryland, had witnessed their president make a historic trip to Andrews Air Force Base to greet Benedict XVI as a head of state. No president before George W. Bush has ever made the 16.3 mile trip from the White House to greet a foreign head of state.
In the Congress, the House of Representatives, echoing the president’s welcome, gave approval to a resolution welcoming His Holiness. A Senate resolution brought forth by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PN) was introduced for a unanimous action, but an unknown Democratic Senator objected. I agree with Timothy P. Carney from the American Conservative that it was probably this line of the resolution that earned the Senatorial blackball:
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out for the weak and vulnerable, witnessing to the value of each and every human life.
President Bush, in addressing the Holy Father, once again spoke out in defense of the sanctity of life. This is the bond between the president and the pope that trumps any other differences between the Vatican and the United States. The papal birthday party on the South Lawn of the White House was hosted by an Evangelical, born-again, Christian who may mispronounce ecclesial Latin but whose worldview needs no translation for Benedict XVI.