This week, Callista and I had the remarkable opportunity to see Pope Francis three times during his two-day visit to Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday morning we attended the White House Welcoming Ceremony. Here we joined 15,000 guests on the White House lawn to welcome the Holy Father to the United States.
Wednesday afternoon we went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the historic Canonization Mass of Junipero Serra.
Finally, on Thursday we went to the Capitol to hear Pope Francis address a Joint Session of Congress.
There is a lot to digest in the Pope’s various speeches (including a very interesting one that he delivered to the bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral). All of Pope Francis’ remarks will require time to read, think about and analyze.
So today I am writing an initial collection of thoughts and observations about the Pope and his visit to Washington, D.C.
When we visited the White House on Wednesday morning (arriving at 7:00 am for a 9:15 am ceremony), we were very impressed with the Secret Service. This was the largest White House gathering of the Obama presidency so far. More than 15,000 people passed through security in a very timely and efficient manner.
Virtually everyone on the White House lawn was excited to see Pope Francis. There was a sense of great anticipation. When the Pope finally arrived, everyone applauded, watched and listened intensely. The President and the Pope were both very positive in their remarks. And the “President’s Own” Marine Band was brilliant, as usual.
Immediately following the arrival ceremony, Callista and I rushed from the White House to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Canonization Mass, where Callista sang in the choir.
More than 27,000 people came to the Basilica to see Pope Francis. And in some respects, the logistics at the Basilica were even more complicated than at the White House. The preparations for the outdoor Canonization Mass were a major undertaking. (Imagine having enough Eucharistic ministers for 27,000 people!)
At the Basilica, we waited patiently and eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Holy Father. As Pope Francis finally arrived in a small Fiat flanked by four Chevrolet Suburbans, he was greeted with thunderous applause.
It was fun to watch the little car and its giant escorts — a symbol of the Pope’s frugality and avoidance of glamor. Cardinal Donald Wuerl rode in the back seat with Pope Francis and it struck me that the car must have been a bit crowded.
Upon arriving at the Basilica, the Pope immediately transferred from his Fiat to the Popemobile. The faithful loved seeing Pope Francis move throughout the crowd in the Popemobile (which was actually a Jeep Wrangler).
Accompanied by Cardinal Wuerl and Monsignor Rossi, the Pope entered the Basilica to greet and bless those who would participate in the outdoor Mass via large screens inside. Pope Francis walked the entire length of the church and was enthusiastically received. Many people tried to touch him. Most, including many nuns, were blocked by his security team. But now and then the Pope would physically reach out to people.
The Choir of the Basilica greeted the Holy Father with an arrangement of Christus Vincit, accompanied by a powerful brass and percussion ensemble.
I am biased because this is Callista’s 20th year in the Choir of the Basilica and I have been listening to it for years. I think the choir, directed by Dr. Peter Latona, is one of the best in the country (a position many visiting cardinals and bishops have reinforced).
Despite an exhausting schedule (including 4 previous days in Cuba, an early White House reception, a parade on the National Mall, and a prayer service with the U.S. Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral), Pope Francis was clearly energized by the extraordinary reception he received at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The outdoor Canonization Mass of Junipero Serra was historic and truly beautiful. The Holy Father canonized the first saint on U.S. soil.
On Thursday, Pope Francis spoke to a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress. This was such an important moment that I will devote an entire column to it next week.