On Thursday, Jan. 5, 2022, the world celebrated the long life and episcopal legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XIV at a most holy outdoor funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican.
The Pope Emeritus was not only celebrated in death, but also while he lived.
Then-President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush were able to do just that for his birthday — 15 years ago at the White House.
The Holy Father also known as the pope has a unique role as both head of state of the Vatican and the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Therefore, in his capacity as both a political and religious leader, many U.S. presidents have met with the pope in Rome, at the Vatican: on numerous visits during foreign travel of the presidency.
However, a papal visit to the White House is not as commonplace.
A pope’s visit to the White House is a high honor, taking place on only three occasions in U.S. history.
One of the visits was that of Former Pope Benedict XVI to the George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. This served as a way for His Holiness to demonstrate friendship to the United States.
President and Mrs. Bush understood and appreciated the historical significance of a papal visit. They ensured it would be reverent, memorable, and elegant.
In true Bush style they wanted it to be a special occasion, not for just the thousands in attendance at the White House and millions watching globally, but also for the pope himself.
Given the rarity of this type of visit by the head of the Vatican (in addition to the significance of the date of trip) the day before his official papal visit to the White House, President and Mrs. Bush departed from custom by going to Andrews Air Force Base to personally greet the Pope Benedict.
Anita McBride, the first lady’s chief of staff, says the decision was President Bush’s, to acknowledge the significance of the occasion. "As the leader of a billion people of faith worldwide, the pope is unlike any other head of state," she said.
"It was important to the Bushes to honor him, because they are people of faith, too."
On April 16, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made history because it was the first visit by a Pope to the president’s house in almost 30 years.
Even more special was the fact that the holy father arrived on his 81st birthday.
This was especially touching to the first lady who wrote in her memoirs, "The papal nuncio told the White House that the Pope had decided to arrive on his birthday because "you spend your birthday with your friends."
"He wanted the visit to be a reflection of his respect for the United States, for its generosity and charity. We were deeply touched."
More than 13,000 guests from all over the United States welcomed him on the south lawn of the the White House.
The Holy See's national anthem was played, followed by that of the United States.
During the ceremony before a spontaneous serenade of the song "Happy Birthday" broke out for the pontiff by the massive crowd of well-wishers proudly waving mini-U.S. and Vatican flags. Soprano, Kathleen Battle then sang a stirring rendition of "The Lord’s Prayer" for his holiness rather than a traditional anthem or marching song.
The president opened his remarks by declaring, "You've chosen to visit America on your birthday. Well, 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," the president continued, "Here in America, you’ll find a nation of compassion. . . .
"Each day citizens across America answer the universal call to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and care for the infirm.
"Each day across the world the United States is working to eradicate disease, alleviate poverty, promote peace and bring the light of hope to places still mired in the darkness of tyranny and despair….
"In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that 'God is love.'"
Followed by remarks by the His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Sergeant Alvy Powell then led the U.S. Army Chorus in singing magnificently the Civil War anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The president, first lady, and the pope walked up the staircase on the Truman Balcony.
There, yellow and white flowers (in honor of the papal flag colors) were blooming in pots. There, an adoring crowd singing "Happy Birthday" to His Holiness, this time led by Kathleen Battle, while His Holiness clapped and smiled with joy over the warm reception.
Inside the White House on the State Floor there was a special surprise.
White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses had created a four-tier square birthday cake for the Pope. Subsequently, the pope and the president met, inclusive of an Oval Office meeting.
Later, that evening Pope Benedict had a private dinner with his American cardinals while the White House held a special dinner in honor of his visit, inviting Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders, especially from charities, who had done so much to help at home and abroad.
First lady Laura Bush also invited Catholic members of the cabinet and Congress, as well as Catholic members of the U.S. Supreme Court; many good friends of the president and first lady attended also, who shared the Pope’s faith.
Pope Benedict departed the White House in his custom white Pope Mobile and drove around the White House complex for a parade route for the benefit of the thousands who could not get onto the South Lawn.
Now that Pope Emeritus Benedict XIV is at eternal rest, the memory of his 81st birthday at the White House will have to live on in the hearts and minds of the thousands present that day including, Mrs. Bush who recalled of that special day with the Pope, "April 16 was one of the loveliest days we spent at the White House."
Jennifer B. Pickens (@JenniferBPickens) is a White House historian and first lady expert. She is a public speaker the author of three books on the White House: "Christmas at the White House," "Pets at the White House," and her latest book "Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions." Read more of her reports — More Here.
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