WASHINGTON – Without a cloud in the sky,Thursday was perfect for lathering on the sunscreen and basking in the sun while waiting to catch a glimpse of the highest leader in the Catholic church,Pope Benedict XVI.
Hundreds of students,faculty and staff at the Catholic University of America gathered on the lawn near the university's Pryzbyla Center on the Northeast Washington campus.
The university showed the papal mass at Nationals Park on a jumbo-screen television,followed by the 1992 movie “Sister Act” and a “Rock the Pope” festival to get students excited about Pope Benedict's arrival later in the afternoon.
Though the festivities drew large crowds,many showed up just in time to glimpse the pontiff as he arrived at 5 p.m. to speak to the leaders of Catholic universities and dioceses across the country.
Jeff Peters,24,a CUA English literature student,said he was interested in hearing the pope's talk about religious teaching.
“This is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime speech,” Peters said,standing in line to get on the lawn to see the Mass. “As a person who grew up in the Catholic education system and will probably teach in the Catholic education system,this is very important to me.”
For some,this glimpse would not be the first. Rachel Hart,22,an art history major,and Kaety Prentice,19,an architecture major,both lined up outside CUA's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Wednesday,to see the pope as he came to meet and pray with 350 U.S. bishops.
“My parents are really excited. My mom came yesterday,but got lost in the crowd,” said Hart,a Catholic.
Prentice chose CUA for its architecture program.
“I'm not a Catholic,but I feel like the pope is an important religious figure,” she said. “He has a lot to tell the world,and it's important to learn from him no matter what religion you are.”
Another Protestant,a Student Programs Office staff member in her 40s,Kimberly Parrot,of Hyattsville,Md.,said she planned to work at the sign-in table to get onto the lawn.
“We're just very,very blessed,” Parrot said. “He's a leader in the Christian faith.”
As “Sister Act” played on the big screen,students tossed Frisbees and sang along with Whoopi Goldberg's choir. Priests and seminary students loitered in their black robes,waving small yellow flags bearing the pope's symbol.
Bishops and Catholic college leaders arrived throughout the day,crossing the lawn in a drawn-out procession to the Pryzbyla Center to await the pope. Students cheered for the leaders they recognized.
Established in 1887,Catholic University is the only university founded by U.S. bishops. It has an enrollment of 3,326 undergraduates and 3,114 grad students. Of the undergrads,88 percent are Catholic. Of grads students,59 percent are Catholic.
Among CUA alumni are 132 current or retired Catholic bishops.
Monica Bond,23,a student from Irving,Texas,came to see the televised mass because she is working on her master's degree in moral theology.
“Training as a Catholic theologian,there's an interesting connection between what I'm going to be spending my life doing and the pope,” Bond said.
Her friend,Katherine Dunigan,24,a master's student in medieval and Byzantine studies,said,”And he's God's representation on earth. That's important too.”
As the pope spoke during the Mass on the screen in front of her,Dunigan giggled,”I love his accent.”
After the movie,Mike Andrews,assistant dean of students,tried to get students energized to “rock the pope.”
He yelled,”Here come the final moments before the Holy Father arrives on this campus!” followed by sparse clapping. “You don't sound too excited.”
Father Robert Schlageter,university chaplain and director of campus ministry,and known on campus as “Father Bob,” joined Andrews and the crowd,chanting “C-U-A-L-T-P,” meaning “CUA loves the pope.”
“You yell louder at 3 o'clock at night when you wake me up!” Father Bob admonished the crowd.
He came wearing a black robe and said he wants to show support for the pope,especially because the U.S. is not majority Catholic. To him,the pope understands the “compatibility between the Catholic faith and reason.”
At the Nationals Park mass,Pope Benedict XVI talked about the need for healing in the American Catholic church after the sex abuse scandals of the last few years. Vitz said he thought the pope felt obligated to mention the scandals because it is his first visit to the United States.
Asked if he would cheer when he sees the pontiff,Vitz smiled widely and said,”Oh,of course!”
After his meeting at the Pryzbyla Center,the pope rode in his popemobile across campus on his way to the meeting with leaders of other religions. The crowd of several thousand greeted him by dancing,singing and waving,as children sat on parents' shoulders. Some people climbed trees for a better view. Pope Benedict waved back.
To see more photos of Pope Benedict’s day in Washington,visit this photo gallery.