Our trip to Washington D.C. to cover Pope Benedict’s first visit to the States is a perfect example of the cliché “a blessing in disguise.” There was a point before we left that we felt like the universe was doing anything within its power to prevent us from seeing the Holy See (pun intended). Long story short, they pre-approved us for press credentials, but then denied us access to any site outside of the media center; reason being that we are such a small news outlet and they had plenty of networks clamoring for a spot on the media platforms. However, we decided to make the trip regardless of our limited credentials. To summarize the words of our advisor, sometimes the press is on the risers in one location while the real story is happening across the street. With that thought on our minds, we packed up the LCTV gear and headed out to DC… and across the street. Little did we know that Washington D.C. held a treasure chest of life lessons for us.
Our first hidden treasure came in the form we were searching for- the stories no one else gets to tell. The day before the Pope’s arrival, we stopped by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to see if we could get some video of their preparations for Papal Visit 2008. We stopped at the information desk where we met three elderly women with sparkling personalities and true hearts of gold. They were all volunteers, in charge of answering phones and guiding the occasional tour. They giggled as they told us how excited they were to see the Pope the next day. They looked at it as God’s way of paying them for all their years of service to the church, “just one of the benefits we get from working here,” as one of them said. After their interviews, they pointed us in the direction of the chapel where the Pope would be spending time in private prayer. While capturing video of the sacred place, we were approached by a family who asked us if we were with the “regular media.” We explained who we were and what we were doing and to our surprise, they revealed that they were friends with the Pope when he was still a cardinal. They had spent three years in Rome, looking to him for spiritual guidance. Stories like that can’t be found from the press box. They only happen if you open your mind to the possibility that a story can be found anywhere. As a journalist, that’s a pretty important lesson to learn.
Treasure number two came again in the faces of the faithful. The Pope “paraded” down Pennsylvania Avenue after his meeting at the White House and thousands of people lined the streets, straining for a glimpse of the pontiff. The flood of the faithful continued the next day with the mass at Nationals Stadium. The stadium seats over 40,000 and tickets were hard to come by, but that didn’t stop people from coming out that day in hopes of securing themselves a seat of their own. There was a crowd of people who didn’t get inside the stadium, but remained at the gates to watch and participate in the mass through the outdoor screen. One woman from the Philippines was so overjoyed when Pope Benedict XVI appeared on the screen that she began to cry and wave at the screen. Her faith brought her to the stadium that day, and even though she didn’t get a ticket, she still felt truly blessed- another woman with a heart of gold. On the other side of the street were the protestors, bound and determined to let the Catholic Church know that they were wrong and that there was still time to be “born again.” Although it was challenging as a Catholic to experience that level of loathing, it was yet another lesson about faith. If someone is willing to evangelize their faith over a loudspeaker, no matter what denomination it may be, especially in an environment that was clearly adverse to their own beliefs, that’s a sure sign their faith is pretty strong. It was definitely a blessing to be a witness to faith that knows no boundaries and refuses to accept any limitations.
A third treasure was more of a realization as a result of what we had seen. The word “Catholic” means “universal.” We’ve never seen that concept demonstrated as clearly as it was last week. From the family who had lived in Rome befriending Cardinal Ratzinger to the Philippine woman who had brought her own stool to sit on in case she got tired while waiting for the Pope, we saw all kinds. The faces of the faithful ranged from the young and the innocent to the old and experienced, from Hispanic to Caucasian, from Bob the auto-mechanic to Mary the news producer at CBS Washington. How appropriate that the head of the Catholic church drew together people from across the nation and around the globe: the committed Catholics thrilled to be so close to their devoted leader, members of other denominations who came just out of respect (or to express their own beliefs), the people that planned the events, the site coordinators, the maintenance staff at the Basilica, the journalists who worked tirelessly to share the event with the public, the vendors who memorabilia on the streets (also known as “history on a stick”). They were not all Catholic– and they didn’t have to be– but they were all there, and they were all working together for the same cause– to make sure Pope Benedict XVI was warmly welcomed in the land of the free. Being with our universal Catholic family and in a sea of faithful people from every walk of life just made us stop and think about our family here at Loras- a blessing that we too often take for granted.
We’ll stop there for now, knowing that we found too many treasures to share and acknowledging the fact that we haven’t even been home for a week yet. Unfortunately we can’t say that we met the Pope, or that we even got close to him (although we did see him through the camera lens). What we did see was an amazing and powerful witness of faith; Catholics and Non-Catholics, young and old, journalists and non-journalists. The Pope drew quite a crowd, and we were blessed to be a part of it. It will take some time to realize and fully appreciate just what an awesome event we witnessed as we witnessed a piece of history. We are truly blessed.