By: Catherine Thompson
Always on the outside looking in, a proud citizen of Washington, DC gets her chance to be a part of history for a day…
When my boyfriend Chris told me a few days before Pope Francis was due to arrive in Washington, DC that he had a single ticket to go see the Pope speak at the White House and he wanted me to have it, I didn’t immediately jump up and down and say “Yes! I’ve been wanting to go to see him.” It wasn’t because it was the Pope that I wasn’t excited, but because of all of the recent build-up by the media surrounding the laborious process of actually going to see him. The thought of having to get up around 4 o’clock in the morning, waiting in a massive line and then being crammed along the South Lawn, all simply to just begin waiting to see the Pope, did not at all seem appealing to me.
Pope Francis’s trip to America, specifically DC where I live, meant that I would have to take a personal day from my new job due to the fact that he was visiting our nation’s capital. The news outlets were all reporting that the roads in DC nearby my apartment were being closed to vehicle traffic during the Pope’s visit, and for me that meant driving to work would be an impossible task and getting home would be even more of a nightmare, as I would have to fight a mass pilgrimage of people flowing into the city.
A day off from work for me is rare. I had planned out a day for myself that entailed sitting on my couch in my pajamas, cozying up with my dog, and watching the Pope on television from the comfort of my home. And quite possibly, if a moment of unsolicited motivation did arrive, I’d consider walking down towards the National Mall, since I live close by, to feel the energy flowing off of everyone lining the streets. We had some friends staying with us as well, who had come into town to see Pope Francis speak, and when I told them later that day what I was thinking, choosing a couch and the comfort of my flannel pajamas over a chance to see the Pope speak at the White House, they looked at me as if I was crazy. When I mentioned to Chris that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, and that he should maybe give the ticket away or go himself, he looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost and blurted out, “Catherine! It’s the Pope!!!!”
To give you a little background on me, I was born and raised Catholic. I was part of my church’s youth group, I went to church every Sunday and I took part in all the religious ceremonies associated with being raised a proper Catholic. When I was in college, and even into graduate school, I went to church as often as my schedule allowed, trying to hit as many Sunday services as I could. I haven’t been to church in a while though, and I think somewhere between the Church’s views on gay marriage and abortion, I stopped going. Yet even though I stopped going to church, I still had my Faith. I just don’t believe I need to go to church in order to be religious. I still believe in the foundations of Catholicism despite my drifting from the flock and this Pope has given me hope of a Catholic Faith that is dynamic and ever-changing and capable of growing with the times and its millions of followers. But I was confusing my displeasure with the act of going to see the Pope with the thrill and wonder of his persona, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see him in person.
After my boyfriend said those four words to me, I realized that I was being irrational. Occasions like this don’t come around often and why would I ever give up on an opportunity to actually be a part of history? I’m so glad that Chris said what he did, for it was the spark I needed to make up my mind. And what transpired on September 23rd, as I stood on the luscious green grass of the White House’s South Lawn, on a beautiful sunny morning, is something that I will never forget.
We woke up early. Chris was going to drop me off near the long line in front of the White House. He didn’t have a ticket. The tickets were hard to come by and he wanted someone like me who had not seen the Pope before to experience this historic moment. Plus, Chris was able to go see Pope Francis when he went to Italy last year for work. That morning, before we left, I asked him if there was anyway that he could come too. I really wanted him to share in this experience with me. “How could you miss out on this?” I asked him as we navigated the labyrinth of closed-off streets. Chris replied there was a ticket he might be able to get and he asked me pointedly, “Should I go?” Using his own words as ammunition, I responded excitedly, “Chris. It’s the Pope!!!
After several hurried phone calls Chris was able to get that second ticket and we celebrated the early morning victory with an unspoken smile that said we knew we were about to be a part of something amazing. We made our way down to the White House where Chris works, and were greeted by a line that wrapped all the way across the street. We were both feeling a buzz of excitement and were thrilled to be out on this adventure even though it was very early in the morning. The lines went quickly, always moving forward and the White House staff had the system down pat. Even though we were moving forward quickly, Chris and I took the time to look at all the peoples faces and to talk to those around us and share in the collective excitement. Also, as with any good people watching, I was noticing what people were wearing. There were people decked out in their Sunday best to women in fancy hats that remind me of Kate Middleton to some who were just in jeans and hoodies. We asked strangers where they were from. How they had traveled here. Whether they were excited and what they thought about the new Pope.
When we progressed into the South Lawn it was 7:30 am and the attendants were handing out programs and small American and Vatican flags for us to wave. The sun had just come out, chasing away the greys of dawn and at that moment, as I stepped onto the green grass, I felt my heart beat a little faster. As I crossed the gate I felt that I had crossed an invisible curtain. It was as if I had opened my wardrobe and stepped into the magical landscape of Narnia, where you keep wondering if this is really real or are you dreaming. Goosebumps raised up on my arms and I felt a warm smile spread across my face. Even though we had waited in line for only an hour, it had seemed like it took no time at all. Excitement and the wonder of the unknown has a strange way of toying with time.
The layout of the South Lawn reminded me of when I would go to church, with white chairs arranged in rows resemblant of pews for those too frail to stand. For me, the experience wasn’t about Faith or religion anymore as I looked around and listened. It became about being a part of something. An indescribable something that I’m sure countless others often feel and that is definitely bigger than me or you.
In total we stood on the South Lawn, back near the great stone fountain, for approximately two hours. Thinking back on it now, two hours is a long time to stand without any reprieve. However, as it often is the case with time when you are excited, it seemed to go by in a flash. I think when you’re standing in front of one of the most powerful places in the world, just staring at the White House with American flags being waved all around you by countless happy people excited as can be that they get this opportunity, and the mesmerizing sound of the water fountain wafting in on the background and the Washington Monument pointing stolidly into the sky behind you with its sharpened tip, it’s hard to not be transfixed by the experience of it all. I felt as if time had stopped and I found myself asking myself, “How did I get here?”
During those two hours that we were waiting my mind often drifted away. I thought about my grandmother and wondered if she was there in spirit with me and I wished that I could go home to Connecticut and tell her all about how I was able to see the Pope. Or maybe even, I wondered, if she would’ve made the trip down for this event if she was still alive. I thought about my years growing up in the Catholic Church and about how I am older now and how my views have changed and I wondered if this moment would have an impact on me moving forward. Would I start going to church again? Would I be inspired to be a better person? Or would nothing at all come out of me seeing him speak?
We were packed in like sardines as we waited for the Pope’s arrival sometime around at 9 am. Chris and I were up against a temporary fence that lined the huge circular fountain. It felt as if everyone was completely okay with someone pushing up against them as there seemed to be such a sense of camaraderie in the air. I could smell the intoxicating aroma of fresh cut grass and I remember at one point, I took off my shoes and buried my toes in the soft blades. How often does one get the chance to bury their toes in the White House lawn? I pondered, and then my thoughts turned to an excitement borne of new experiences.
I felt pride in a community coming together for a shared event. I felt currents of excitement run through my body and I drank heavily of the shared collective anticipation present on everyone’s face. It was getting late, just after 9:30 am, and then a murmur ran through the crowd and those closest to the iron fences lining the street ran forward to catch a glimpse of the Pope drive by. The person next to me laughed and made a comment about how funny it was that he arrived in a Fiat and not some blacked-out limousine or SUV. It was awesome and inspiring to see how much people wanted to catch a glimpse of the Pope. And it was at this very moment that I realized what I was a part of. Of what was unfolding. I realized how grateful I was to be an actual witness to history and not merely watching it on television or in a movie. As I craned my neck over the surging crowd, I caught a glimpse of Pope Francis’s snowy white robes and immediately I reached out and grabbed Chris’s arm, a shiver of happiness coursing through me, and raising my lips to his ear I whispered, “Thank you.”
After the fanfare of the Pope’s arrival had died down and after President Obama had delivered his speech, the Pope came to the podium, looking out over the expansive lawn. When he spoke, his English was hard to understand but I did notice that he had the same pause and flexion as my priest did at my church growing up and it was like I was back at St. Paul’s Church all over again, a kid sitting in the hard wooden pews, kicking her legs back and forth above infinity as the man in the white robes up front spoke.
Pope Francis’s sermon however, was one that I have been waiting for since I was a child. For a long time I have felt that a lot of Catholic sermons at church have drifted away from the foundations of the religion. I had been searching for a priest who would discuss how to be a better person, to reminded us all to help those less fortunate and to remember to be a good person and to love your fellow man. I felt that on Wednesday, while I was standing on the White House lawn and I was listening to Pope Francis speak, that he did just that, reminding us that the teachings of the Bible are important, and still relevant today, despite what faith you subscribe to and that being a kind person and taking care of the world are ideas that cut across any religion or belief. He spoke of conservation, an issue near to my heart, and I found myself clapping and cheering and smiling at times, overcome with emotion, when he talked about the world and how we need to take better care of it. It was in that moment that I realized that the Pope was mixing a little bit of policy with religion which was the very thing that had stopped me from going to church. But there was something about the way that Pope Francis spoke, and the words that he choose, that made it all seem okay. He offered up a nice balance of seeming progressive and changing with the times mixed with the usual measures of Catholicism and God.
After the Pope spoke the ceremony ended, and along with President Obama, he retreated into the White House, disappearing in a swirl of white. I was caught again in a moment of awe, of being on the South Lawn on a beautiful September morning and having just listened to the Pope give a historic speech. Chris and I waited until the crush of people exiting the lawn died down and I took this opportunity to walk to the very end of the lawn and just sit down in the soft grass, letting the sun warm my face and taking a moment to enjoy the peaceful day. After a few minutes we took a stroll to the White House garden and I photographed a few flowers swaying in the morning sun.
I had been living in DC for almost ten years up until that day I saw the Pope speak, and with frequency I had passed by the White House as I went about the rhythms of my day. But I’ve always been on the outside of those tall black gates looking in. I don’t think there’s an adjective to describe what it was like to be on the other side of that fence that day and in the past, when I’ve jogged past the White House, I’ve always thought, “Wow, here’s a place where history is made every day.” But on that particular Wednesday in September, I was finally able to be a part of that history and it was something that I will never forget because, “It’s the Pope!”