Pope Benedict XVI visited CUA Wednesday and yesterday, and I was on what were the front lines for the duration. On the whole, I'd say it was certainly quite the experience. It was definitely something worth seeing and sensing: After all, the man is the pope, and regardless of your religious views as long as you're respectful and open-minded, the experience is certainly one worth undertaking.
In the days leading up to the papal visit I was becoming increasingly concerned over the degree to which the Secret Service among other organizations would be infringing on my movement. I live in Gibbons, a dorm which overlooks the lawn outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which, according to Wikipedia "is the largest Catholic church in the United States and one of the largest religious structures in the world," and where the Pope said Mass to a gathering of United States bishops on Wednesday. We had already been told that we'd need our ID in addition to a special credential (a sticker on said ID) to enter and exit the building, that the Secret Service would be searching our rooms, and, ominously, that we had to keep our blinds down on our windows at all times.
The Secret Service search wound up being the most inconveinant of these to say the least. Quite frankly, it was a little scary. I had intentionally decided to sleep in that day after a long night before, and what woke me up around 10:45 was repeated rapping sound in intermittent bursts, like a hammer to a nail, gradually getting louder and closer. It turned out one of the DPS guys was knocking on the door with his nightstick, leading in for a few secret service agents and their dog, and we had to get out NOW. The way this worked was you'd leave your door unlocked and open and the dog would run loose and run in if he smelled anything.
Meanwhile, the residents waited outside, and people were talking about how they were almost forced out in various states of undress. The mood was something like a fire drill, except you thought more about your civil liberties. I resolved that if one of the dogs defecated in my room I was moving to Canada. The mood outside, really, was light given the circumstances, if not a little angry and slightly frightened. Security run ins would continue throughout the day, as I got chastised for walking through the parking lot near the Basilica and had to get my ID checked at two separate security points any time I wanted to go basically anywhere outside of Gibbons, at one point having to submit myself to a search with a hand-held metal detector. Word came around midday that after 4:30 until 7:30 PM, we were either inside or outside of Gibbons.
Now I'm aware that someone as prestigious and representative of as large a body as the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the leader of said body, needs to be protected as he is a potential target for myriad terrorists and assassins affiliated with anti-Catholic or otherwise anti-Western organizations (more on the Protestant fringe element who turned out later), but I nonetheless couldn't help but feel a little invaded. This is where I live, study, and socialize and I couldn't help but feel a gut reaction resolutely against the security measures as much as I intellectually understood why they needed to be there, for my protection as well as for the protection of the pope. But to have one's surroundings in which one moves freely on a daily basis cornered off and restricted by some alien force is a surreal experience, and not at all fun.
At around 2:30 I noticed that a large crowd had gathered along Michigan Avenue and 4th street, and, with this blog in mind, I decided to scope out the scene. A conventional news report would probably tell you that this was a gathering of Catholics of all stripes, although that's not entirely accurate. The bulk, really, were these Hispanic church groups, who kept themselves discrete from one another by holding up large banners proclaiming themselves the representative groups of their respective parishes. Each group gathered around a few people with guitars, drums and megaphones and sang spiritual songs, and the result of all of these groups doing this at the same time was a bit gratingly cacophonous, though the mood was good. Mixed in with these Hispanic parish groups were the odd middle class Irish or Italian family and assorted clergy. The traffic was moving pretty lucidly given the circumstances, although buses filled with DC city cops came through every now and then, and this again had my civil liberties sensor going off.
As irritatingly noisy as they sometimes were, it was really nice to see the Hispanic groups I mentioned out in force. The current state of Hispanics, specifically Hispanic Immigrants, in America strikes me as comparable to that of the Irish and German immigrants of the latter half of the 19th century from which I am descended. They face many of the challenges those groups faced, and I believe they are more than capable of rising in the economic and social strata in much the same way those aforementioned immigrant groups did. Because I see their situation as so comparable to my ancestors I have no time for those of similar ethnic backgrounds to my own who favor policies along the lines of building a 700-mile long fence along the United States border. I'm aware, of course, of the difference between legal and illegal immigration, but I still think a lenient immigration policy that acknowledges that these people are willing to work here and succeed is in order.
At around four I decided to leave again, as I decided that if it was "in" or "out," then I wanted "out," and I had to return some damaged iPod ear buds anyway. In a last ditch effort though, I did manage to score myself a spare ticket from some friends to the field outside of the Basilica to see the pope enter for bishops' Mass. Wednesday was an especially pretty day if not a bit hot and humid. I sat with my friends Craig, Luis and Christina on their blanket and really just took in the scene. On the east side of the field there were these elevated booth-like structures for television broadcasters and some sort of papal merchandise stand, complete with a cardboard cut-out of Benedict XVI you could take your picture with. On the roofs of Gibbons on the south end of the field and McMahon, a classroom building, on the north end, snipers were stationed, in addition to, I later learned, on top of the Basilica dome.
There was a lot of waiting. Word got around that the pope was arriving at 5, then 5:30, and finally, 6. The time was easy to pass as a lot of friends came through and I mainly talked with Christina, who mentioned something interesting at some point about Protestants who wish for Christian unity, but yet refuse to rejoin the Church. She and I also found common ground in that it's hard being a good church attending Catholic, though not especially religious or dogmatic Catholic, these days when there's a pretty large and pretty vocal anti-secular reactionary and judgmental element in Catholicism these days.
Finally, the pope arrived at around 5:30, preceded by a motorcade and the thunderous ringing of the Basilica bells. It was difficult to get a good vantage point, so I really didn't see much of him. Nonetheless, the crowd was ecstatic, and people that I know who generally don't show any interest in the Church or religion seemed just as excited as even the most devoted Catholics. He exited the trademark Popemobile and waved the the crowd, and the whole event couldn't have lasted for more than a few seconds. Although he's a lot different from what our generation expects of a pope after having only known Pope John Paul II, he nonetheless seemed to be reveling in the attention. Afterwards I managed to get on the seemingly packed Metro train with no trouble at all by entering through the Brookland entrance to return my headphones.
PART II NEXT