Why wake up at 3:30 a.m.? To attend a welcome ceremony for Pope Francis on the south lawn at the White House. Through my job at the State Department, I received two complimentary tickets to an intimate gathering of 12,000, one ticket for me, and one for my 86-year-old (oops, she prefers “85 and a bit”) mother. She flew down the evening before from Rochester, NY, having sent ahead of time a cane with a tripod and folding seat, and a box of 300 rosaries that she and her buddies had made to bring and be blessed when the Pope blessed the crowd.
I talked to State Dept. Protocol, who was in touch with White House Protocol. They advised against bringing in all those rosaries because Security might think she’d try to distribute them, throw them in the air, or otherwise disrupt the event, and not allow us in. We ended up bringing six each, one for each apostle. In any event, the Pope didn’t bless the crowd, but ALL 300 rosaries were exposed to the papal energy in the DC area (“Mom, you need to put a positive spin on this, and think outside the box”).
Protocol also wasn’t sure Security would allow in the cane seat, since they’d told people not to bring folding chairs, but they knew for sure they’d allow wheelchairs. Given all the standing and walking, this was a good idea, and I rented one. But actually, it turned out to be a GREAT idea.
We caught the first Metro train of the day at 5 a.m. Found a perfect spot for Mom in the wheelchair on a train that was standing room only by the time it left its first stop. When we arrived at the downtown security perimeter, several of the 150 friendly White House interns in red vests helped guide us and other attendees in wheelchairs through Security, past the long lines (“Wheelchairs coming through!”), and to a special viewing area about 200 feet from the podium. Each guest received a commemorative program, ticket, Vatican flag, Nutrigrain bar, and bottle of Dansai water. Since it was in the vicinity of Pope Francis, I opted to think of it as Holy Water. I got to sit in a white folding chair, just like VIPS we saw in the VIP sections, like Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and a passel of cardinals, bishops and a nun wearing the white and cornflower blue habit of Mother Theresa. A squirrel got the best seat, high in a tree, although he kept running up and down, I suppose to try and improve his view.
While we waited for the start of the program at 9:15, there was pomp and there was ceremony. A military band in red uniforms played marches. Other groups of soldiers arrived with swords and rifles with fixed bayonets, with U.S. flags, Vatican flags and flages of the fifty states. Fanfare trumpets on the balcony of the White House played “Hail to the Chief” (I bet the president’s kinda tired of that song by now) and the President and Mrs. Obama stepped out of the White House.
Helicopters buzzed overhead from time to time and we wondered how the Pope would arrive. He drove up to the lawn in a black Fiat (a symbol of modesty and a plug for an Italian carmaker). He and Obama stood together at the podium on the lawn, while the band played the anthems of the U.S. and the Vatican. The Pope looked a bit tired, perhaps because of his busy four days in Cuba, but I’m guessing more because he’s not a morning person, since he looked peppier later in the day on the news footage.
First President Obama spoke, welcoming the Pope to the U.S., emphasizing the Pope’s concern for the poor and disadvantaged. Then the Pope spoke in accented English, and he made two “political” points: one, that as the son of immigrants, he appreciated how the U.S. welcomed immigrants from other countries; and two, that we can’t leave the issue of climate change to future generations. They went up to the balcony and waved to the crowd, and then entered the White House for a private talk.
The crowd cheered, and we were thrilled that the day went off so smoothly. It was a gorgeous, blue-sky day and after we left, the nearby streets were not crowded, both because many of them were closed off and because the government warned workers to telecommute if possible (roads were crowded south of us where the pope would later great the throngs in a pope-mobile parade). And miracle of miracles, Metro ran more or less without incident. Given that I was 50 minutes late getting home the day before because of a Metro power problem, and at a bit later, passengers were stuck on a train in a tunnel for an hour before being rescued, you can understand why I asked people to pray not for Pope Francis, but for Metro.
We’ll be watching TV and reading about the rest of the pope’s visit in the U.S., but it was an honor to be able to give my mother, a devout Catholic her entire life, the opportunity to see him and President Obama in person.