With pomp, pageantry, and an impromptu chorus of "Happy Birthday," Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed in grand fashion at the White House today before a record crowd of 13,500 people, the largest ever for an arrival ceremony there.
For the spiritual father of America's 64 million Roman Catholics, it was a splashy and historic reception, with a 21-gun salute, military honor guard, and song of prayer from soprano Kathleen Battle, all on a sun-kissed spring morning.
President George W. Bush greeted the pope in Latin, saying, "Pax Tecum," for "peace be with you." Bush, before throngs wearing their Sunday best and clutching tiny U.S. and Vatican flags, immediately took note of the pontiff's 81st birthday. "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," he said.
The president used his remarks to preview what lies ahead during the pope's six-day journey, which ends Sunday, to the nation's capital and New York. He called America a "nation of prayer," one that welcomed religion in the public square—a place at once the most innovative, creative, and dynamic and "among the most religious" countries on Earth.
It's estimated there are 1 billion Catholics around the globe, with the third-largest number in the United States.
Striking a somber note, Bush, who is Methodist, said that while some invoke God's name to justify "acts of terror and murder and hate," embracing God's love was "the surest way to save men from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terror."
He heralded the pope's dictate that all life is sacred, echoing the pontiff's words, "Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary," to applause.
The pope, with an off-white cassock, large gold crucifix, and shock of white hair, appeared on the South Lawn with his arms raised outward and told those gathered under cloudless skies that he came as a friend and preacher of the Gospel. He said he had great respect for "this vast, pluralistic society" and saluted the country for ending slavery and showing compassion to countries hit by catastrophe. Meanwhile, he urged support "for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress."
Benedict XVI said he hoped his visit to the United States—the third ever by a pope and the first to Washington in 29 years—would be a "source of renewal and hope" for the church in the United States. He noted that he looked forward to meeting not only Catholics but other Christians and representatives of many faiths as well.
He closed by expressing his gratitude and a "joy to be in your midst," closing with a rousing "God Bless America."
As he spoke, the country's cardinals and bishops and members of the cabinet, Congress, and the diplomatic corps were seated nearby. Colorfully dressed Knights of Columbus, wearing ostrich-feathered hats, stood along with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and young people in Catholic school uniforms. An occasional cry of "Viva Il Papa" went up from the audience, where lifelong Catholic Pamela Mantis, 45, of Clifton, Va., pronounced herself happy to be near his "aura" and "just to be breathing the same air."
A dozen or so in the audience were families with loved ones who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Merrilee Carlson, a Lutheran from Hastings, Minn., who leads a group called Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission. She lost a son in Iraq in 2005.
In a quiet moment, just as Battle was set to sing "The Lord's Prayer," the crowd began a spontaneous chorus of "Happy Birthday." Later, the president, Laura Bush, and the pope climbed steps to a balcony overlooking the South Lawn for a formal birthday serenade.
After the arrival ceremony, the president and the pope met privately in the Oval Office on topics including Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Latin American immigration, the White House said.
The two spent considerable time on the Middle East, talking about concern over the situation in Iraq, especially the "precarious state" of Christian communities in the region, according to a joint statement released afterward. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they discussed the vision of two states living side by side in peace and expressed support for the independence of Lebanon.