The Pope’s Birthday Party

By John Murphy

Posted 4/16/08 at 6:41 PM


11:50. am

In roughly fifteen minutes the popemobile will pass by. I walked down Pennsylvania Ave. towards the White House this morning and the mood is electric. Thousands of people line the sidewalk behind the barricades, holding aloft the Vatican flag and chanting “Viva il Papa!” Praise music is the soundtrack (and lots of ‘Happy Birthdays’): every block showcases strumming guitars, tambourines, bongo drums, and a circle of dancers. The crowds are as diverse in age and ethnicity as the universal church, but I’m also sensing the strong Hispanic influence that promises to invigorate the Church in the coming years with that culture’s vibrancy and infectious sense of joy in Christ.
Emotions are high. “This is once in a lifetime,” I’ve heard people say. Closer to the White House, small but emphatic bands of anti-Catholics, anti-clerics, and/or anti-popes try to drown out the celebratory music with megaphone chants of “The Pope is a criminal!” They closed-in on a group of priests walking by, wielding signs that read “Priests are Predators.” There’s little neutrality in the crowd, little indifference: either a mood of joy resonates or bitter anger; a healthy reminder of how divisive the figure of the pope can be.

I’ll be on the sidewalk in a few minutes awaiting the pope. Brother Hugh is handing out yellow flowers to the flock outside. A banner on the wall of the church is Christ’s quote: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” 

12:05 pm

The pope passes by! The church bells chimed and the congregation lining the barricades in front of St. Stephen Martyr cheered and shouted their joy at his presence. It was a pageant of white and yellow: white and yellow Vatican flags, white and yellow balloons, yellow flowers, and white banners with words of welcome. 

The Mercedes popemobile, a stylish piece of work, zipped by with Benedict XVI waving to the crowd.  A roar went up and he was smiling. It happened very quickly, of course, and as soon as the popemobile vanished into the distance, bells rang out for the 12:10 daily mass. My profound commentary on the moment? That was cool.

Another thought, not much more profound but still valid, occurred to me as the crowd slowly dispersed, chatting, smiling, shaking hands, hugging, and a few wiping away tears. I realized that the pope’s US visit—geopolitics and church problems aside—is very simply a reason for people to come together and celebrate. Even if I wasn’t Catholic, I would’ve enjoyed the spectacle of the crowds, the heated energy of the protesters, the singing, dancing, and chanting. The encounter with the pope is an excuse for people to encounter each other; to enjoy each other’s company in a festive mood and a spirit of goodwill.

It was one of the best birthday parties I’ve ever attended.