The largest crowd in history arrived at the white house lawn yesterday to greet Pope Benedict XVI, the first visit by a Pontiff to the White House in 29 years.
Greeted by a 21 gun salute and the first of several happy birthday serenades, Pope Benedict showed his appreciation, rising halfway out of his chair several times to thank the crowd.
The Pope and the president seemed to have perfectly choreographed speeches, each sounding similar notes, emphasizing themes central to teaching of the Church and to life in America: religious freedom, moral responsibility and the necessary relation between faith and reason.
Their mutual greetings showed that each was listening, interested, and respected what the other had to say.
Summing up his impressions later in the day, Bishop Wenski from the Diocese of Orlando said, "The Pope has expressed both at the White House and the National Shrine his enthusiastic appreciation for America and the American people. He has highlighted Americans' generosity both at home and abroad as well as the religious freedom that is the legacy of our founding Fathers. While concerned about the threat of secularism and the privatization of religious commitment, I believe he has a genuine respect for America and the space it affords to religion to participate in the public square."
With his characteristic clarity, Pope Benedict outlined the purpose and plan of his visit. He came, he said, first as an "ally," to encourage and foster hope, and "on the occasion of the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the elevation of the country's first Diocese – Baltimore – to a metropolitan Archdiocese, and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville."
Pope Benedict said, "As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.”
Monsignor Philip Lowry, pastor of St James Church in Redmond, New Jersey and chaplain to the New Jersey State Police, said, "The Pope's presence here cannot be underestimated. His visit will bring healing; his presence and the outpouring of love by the American people will be a legacy for all of us."
While media focuses much on the gregarious nature of Pope Benedict's beloved predecessor John Paul II, few were surprised by the crowds, limited only by tight security and limited space.
"People like him," said one gentleman. "He is more understandable than John Paul II."
Donna O'Hare from Great Falls, Virginia, said, "I don't feel the same kind of personal connection that I did with John Paul II. But we need to hear this message of hope." Even youth, she said, are drawn by the Pope whose shy manner and penetrating insights elicit a sense of mystery.
"The fact that the Pope gives us so much hope and helps us think about issues, such as global warming, helps me when I think about facing the world I am about to go into," said Jessica Ravens, a junior at Catholic University of America.