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Looking back: When the White House welcomed Pope Benedict

In this photo from 2008, Pope Benedict arrives at the White House April 16, greeted by then-President George and First Lady Laura Bush. In a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn, the president said, “We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine: Pax Tecum. Peace be with you.” The pope said, “I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, (and) a preacher of the Gospel.” (CS file photo by Rafael Crisostomo)

(The following article first appeared in the April 19, 2018 Catholic Standard newspaper to mark the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 pastoral visit to Washington. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died on Dec. 31, 2022 at the age of 95.) 

Although it has been 10 years to the week that Pope Benedict XVI made his historic visit to Washington, D.C., one of the former White House officials who oversaw planning for the papal visit said, “It was such a moving experience, it still feels like it was yesterday.”

“Aside from the joy of being involved in the planning of the visit, what really sticks out is how I felt uplifted by his visit and his words when he reminded us that we are a good nation and a faithful nation and that it is important that we stand firm in our faith,” recalled Anita McBride, who with her family are members of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.

At the time of Pope Benedict’s April 15-17, 2008 visit to Washington as part of a two-city visit to the United States, McBride was serving as then-First Lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff and as a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush.

McBride, who is Catholic, was charged with coordinating the Bushes’ welcoming the pope at Joint Base Andrews on April 15 and the official White House welcoming ceremony on April 16

“The state arrival ceremony at the White House turned out to be the largest attended single event on the South Lawn in the history of the White House,” McBride said. “There was something so joyful about planning this. No one was pulling out their hair. There was a sense of calm and peace around the planning of this visit.”

McBride added that planning the papal visit “entailed a lot of moving parts, a lot of people, a lot of coordination, a lot of details, a lot of planning, but it never felt any other way than being well organized. It was a busy, but joyous journey.”

She called the 30-minute White House welcoming ceremony “very profound” and noted that originally about 9,000 people were expected for the official welcome, but in the end about 13,500 attended the ceremony.

“The words of the Holy Father were so captivating to everyone assembled there, and to everyone in the country and around the world,” McBride said. “It was a time when many in the media and many critics of the administration fully expected His Holiness to comment on the two wars we were involved in at the time. But what the pope did speak to was the honor we should give to those who died in the defense of freedom.”

Dignitaries at the event included then-Archbishop Donald Wuerl, all the American cardinals and most of the nation’s bishops, members of the Senate and House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, wounded military personnel, representatives of religious orders and clergy from other faiths, a Knights of Columbus honor guard, students from Catholic schools and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

President Bush told the pope, “We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine: Pax Tecum. Peace be with you.”

“I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society,” the Holy Father said in return. “America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country.”

Benedict, in his remarks, praised the long heritage of religious freedom in America. He said that during the course of its history, this country has “forged the soul of the nation (where) religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement.”

The official White House welcome also coincided with the pope’s 81st birthday.

“You’ve chosen to visit America on your birthday,” President Bush told Pope Benedict. “Well, birthdays are traditionally spent with close friends, so our entire nation is moved and honored that you’ve decided to share this special day with us. We wish you much health and happiness – today and for many years to come.”

The relatively short official greeting included a 21-gun salute, a rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” by American soprano Kathleen Battle, and impromptu shouts of “Viva il Papa” (“Long Live the Pope”) and an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” by the thousands assembled there. Later, Battle led a more serious rendition of “Happy Birthday” before President and Mrs. Bush escorted the Holy Father into the White House.

Just before leaving the South Lawn, Pope Benedict shouted “God bless America,” which caused great cheers from the excited thousands.

After the public South Lawn ceremony, President and Mrs. Bush escorted the pontiff to the White House Blue Room, where relatives of the president were waiting and where birthday cake was served. The Bushes also gave Benedict a birthday gift: a CD of American singers performing religious songs. The leaders then met privately for about 45 minutes in the Oval Office.

“The Bushes put a lot of thought and attention into this visit of Pope Benedict,” McBride said. “It was an incredible experience for them. Don’t forget, no pope had been at the White House since 1979 when President Carter and John Paul II met.”

In this photo from 2008, Anita McBride, serving as then-First Lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff and as a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, greets Pope Benedict during his April 16 visit that year, as the president and first lady look on. McBride planned the Bushes’ welcoming the pope at Joint Base Andrews on April 15 and the official White House welcoming ceremony on April 16. (Photo courtesy of Anita McBride)

After the White House meeting, Benedict departed in his Popemobile for his return to the Vatican Embassy. Thousands lined the streets to get a glimpse of the pope and to shout their well-wishes.

McBride said it was President Bush’s idea “to break with protocol” and greet Pope Benedict personally when he arrived at Andrews the day before the official White House welcome.

President Bush made history by greeting the pope at Andrews Air Force Base (now called Joint Base Andrews) on April 15, 2008. It was the first time that a president traveled to the suburban Maryland air base to greet an arriving head of state. Traditionally, the president greets foreign dignitaries at a formal White House reception.

“The decision to go to Andrews was the president’s. He wanted to show what a significant visit to our country Pope Benedict was making,” McBride said. “The pope is different from any other head of state – he’s also the leader of a billion people of faith worldwide. The Bushes are people of faith, and they wanted to honor him.”

McBride noted that her coworkers who were either nonreligious or non-Christian “were also very moved by His Holiness’s understanding of and reflection on our nation.”

Calling the entire papal visit “beautifully well thought out and well executed in every way,” McBride said she was especially moved “by the way he took head-on the issue of abuse.”

“Pope Benedict met with survivors and their families,” she said. “He recognized their pain and let them know the Church would not ignore them. The pope in a very gentle way defied his critics and the critics of our Church.”

McBride said planning for Pope Benedict’s visit and having the opportunity to meet him personally had a profound impact on her.

“I was very moved by the experience. The sparkle in his eyes and his smile was so genuine and warm. There is something vey beautiful, gentle, genuine, peaceful and warm about him,” she said. “Every Mass of my entire life I have prayed for the pope, and here I got to meet one. My entire life as a person of faith came pouring out.”

McBride noted that Pope Benedict not only impressed her, but many in the city.

“In this very cynical town of Washington, to see the crowds at the White House and the crowds at (Nationals Park for) his Mass and the thousands that lined up on the streets as the popemobile went by was amazing,” McBride said. “People recognized in this man a person of faith and they wanted to latch on to his message of peace and hope.”