“Plleeeaaaase moooove,” a tiny voice shouted from the crowd.
It was 8:40 am, and the South Lawn of the White House had been populated for hours by thousands of people—like the small boy, wrapped in his mother’s arms and shawl, who owned the tiny voice—hoping to get a good view of Pope Francis, which would have been easy if only those unholy cameramen weren’t standing in the way.
Argentine-born Pope Francis is the fourth head of the Catholic Church to visit the United States in the half-century since Paul VI traveled here in 1965.
Pope Francis, who had never before set foot on American soil, was scheduled to spend his first full day in the country in its capital, first here, at the White House, then traveling through downtown in what has been dubbed his “Popemobile”—an open-air vehicle that looks sort of like a holy forklift, and finally a canonization at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of the Catholic University of America.
The White House, in a pamphlet handed out to visitors, said that the decision to host the pope on the lush South Lawn, adjacent to the Rose Garden and a jungle gym, was the legacy of John F. Kennedy, who “brought the arrival ceremony” to that location.
Before JFK, arrivals of heads of state were conducted either at Washington National Airport (Truman) or Andrews Air Force Base, followed by a parade and a celebration at the West Grounds of the Washington Monument (Eisenhower).
In a nod to that history, President Obama and his family, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his family, greeted the pope at the Joint Base Andrews as he flew in from Cuba on Tuesday.
It was not long after that those eager to secure a ringside seat to history started toward to the White House. Indu Jain, from Maryland, had arrived at 1:30 am, but her mood was still chipper hours later. “I like his views, his point of view on new generations, like on the environment,” Jain told me. “Even though I’m a Hindu, I believe in Hinduism, what he’s doing is good for humanity,” she said. “His main purpose is to give guidance to everybody.”
The guidance he provided on Wednesday, standing on the red-carpeted stage at the White House’s South Portico, was undeniably political. Ahead of his entrance, the band played the National Anthem of the Holy See, and the National Anthem of the United States, during which the crowd sang and swayed in unison. A little boy stood on someone’s shoulders and threw his arm up into the air, clutching an iPhone, to snap a photo. And then, blood-curdling cheers as President Obama introduced Pope Francis, joking that “our backyard isn’t typically this crowded.”
Pope Francis was soon greeted with another wave of hysterical cheers as approached the lectern.
In the first sentence of his remarks, the pope praised the United States for being a nation of immigrants.
“As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said.
American Catholics—of which there 69 million, he said—“are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”
At another point, the pope called for action on climate change.
“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” he said. “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation…To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
Laure Calderoli arrived at the White House at 3 a.m. with her two sisters. They all came up from Texas, she said, and the trip was “worth every sacrifice.” She agreed wholeheartedly with the pope’s comments, she told me, but she disagreed that they were political. “We don’t believe it’s really political,” she said, because, “he’s our guide. He’s very human and we follow his teachings. We believe 100 percent in what he does.”
Still, as proof that even the most beloved figures can’t please everyone, the pope had his detractors in Washington.
Across the street from the White House, three sign-wielding protesters shouted at the top of their lungs. The ringleader, who refused to give his name because “I don’t want fame,” wore a headset microphone like Janet Jackson. They were born-again Christians, they told me, and they think the pope is a fraud for worshipping a version of Jesus that he invented, not the real Jesus.
“It’s nonsense,” the ringleader said of Pope Francis’s politics. “The Bible says, go out into the world and preach the gospel.” Another protester, who told me his name was Joe Blackman, chimed in: “The Bible says summer and winter will continue until the Earth is gone! That’s what it says in Genesis! Not use it up. Be wise, but that shouldn’t be the focal point. The focal point is people’s souls and the glory of God. And the last three summers here? It’s been mild.”
Because Pope Francis is a Jesuit, the protesters claim, “he wants to kill all non-Christians. Look up the Jesuit oath online!” he said. “He swore to kill people like me. If he got power in this nation, he would.”