The most extraordinary thing was the silence. Gathered on the White House lawn with several thousand people, I had expected a bit of a mob: people jostling, shoving, pushing to get a better view. Instead, all was order, calm, and gentleness. Strangers shared their stories, faces lighting up as they discussed sisters who were nuns, or children who were about to make their first Communion. Many were vocal about Pope Francis: how they loved his emphasis on the poor, on justice, on the environment. How they loved his humility, the way he walks what he talks. Next to me, a man turned to a little girl who was a total stranger, and moved her ahead of him into a position with a better view. When he noticed that her mother was in Army uniform, he moved her ahead, too, over her protests: “You have served us; now it’s our turn to serve you.”
The center of DC was a car-free zone that day. Grandparents and grandchildren strolled the streets in safety, their laughter the loudest sound of all. People waited in line politely, patiently, almost reverently. Yes, reverently. They were not there to see another celebrity; their presence was an act of faith. For some, it was Catholic faith, eagerness to see the Vicar of Christ on earth. For others, it was faith in the vision that this man held up: a vision of decency, of a world in which the vulnerable did not get crushed, in which the sky was blue and the earth was green and the raging fires of greed were brought under the control of human beings.
When the President and Pope appeared, there were cheers. They cheered when the President talked, but it was different with Francis. The applause was muted and uncertain, while the faces shone. It felt like we were in church. We were waiting for a touch of holiness, and that does not make you applaud. It makes you still your soul and be silent, like a child upon it’s mother’s breast. (Ps 131)
There was a child ahead of me; actually, two. A toddler was sitting on his father’s shoulders, playing with his daddy’s immaculate Army cap. His baby brother was in a pack on his mother’s back. When Francis began to speak, the baby began to cry out and point with insistent energy: not at Francis. Following the line of his arm, I saw an airplane passing overhead, and saw the scene anew. The Pope is a man I admire, a man of great holiness. But a tube of people flying through the sky: that’s a miracle! As were the phones with which we were calling our loved ones; the cameras that captured this scene to be played again and again; the people arrayed in all their differences, shining with quiet joy. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” We saw it today.