The House is much more an intimate space than on what one sees on television. I noticed a fisheye lens camera that creates the magic on television. In reality, you can virtually reach out and touch the Members (or as I did well after the pope’s departure and the House Chamber started to clear, give a shout out to a Member who heard and replied).
As the members of Congress assembled, I watched the beehive of activity and when I could make eye contact, I’d wave to friends that I knew. It was clearly more festive than when I attended a State of the Union.
It was also special that two other Lions were in the House as well: LMU President Timothy Law Snyder and Loyola University graduate, former House Democratic Majority Whip, Congressman Tony Coelho.
My seat afforded me a fabulous view of the main aisle. Listening to the announcement of the vice president, Senate, Supreme Court, President’s Cabinet — as a student of political science and a lover of American politics, it was like watching the lineup being called for a NBA All Star Game. No matter your team, here were the top professionals in the craft of American politics.
The thrill of seeing the people that guide our government — the names you read in the paper each morning and the faces you see on TV, close enough to touch, gave me a chill.
Hearing the announcement, “Mr. Speaker, the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court,” makes you feel alive as an American. You sit up straighter. With the President’s Cabinet attending, all three branches of government were laid right out before my eyes. The intimacy of the moment was astounding.
But nothing beat the announcement of the Holy Father. Nothing. What an energy engulfed the room.
To watch him enter the House Chamber is something I will never forget. To see the faces of our leaders respond to his presence — from smiles and tears to solemn head nods, all not Catholics, but all Americans — was truly a once in a lifetime experience. It was humbling to be a firsthand witness to history.
It was not only being a witness, but in a very small way, a participant in history. I stood and applauded. I teared up when the pope called America “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
What a shocking and strong line — this comment brought the house down. As an American, you hear that line used in many ways, especially now during a presidential election season, but to hear the pope say it took my breath away. The successor of St. Peter. The moral force of good in the world. I have never been more proud to be an American.
What I heard the Holy Father say without saying it, is how incredibly blessed my family and I are to be Americans. What a gift. He reminded me in that brief moment that above all things, I have my freedom.
I thought how many nations has he traveled to, including the one he visited before coming to America, where in no way can he say “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Nowhere else, but here. In that one instance, I now have a much deeper appreciation of why we say “God Bless America.”
I am not qualified to give a lengthy commentary on his remarks. To be honest, at times it was hard to understand the Holy Father.
But as a Jesuit educated, Loyola Marymount University alum, the message was clear — our shared response of hope and healing. His comments about fighting poverty and hunger to stopping the death penalty, and his choice of Americans to mention, especially Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., all made me think, here indeed is a Jesuit.
He harnessed the power of words to transform hearts and lead people to a deeper understanding of “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
I joined in the choruses of standing ovations. I also watched at times some puzzled faces and a few of our leaders sit on their hands. To be expected in a place of politics.
For me, though, it was applauding the ideals of “cooperating generously for the common good.” We can agree to disagree on what’s the best tactical path to accomplish those things the pope mentioned, but there is no reason not to applaud for the core values he expressed.
Only in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, can a pope stand in the epicenter of our democracy — the well of the House of Representatives — and express such thoughts.
On the ceiling above the House Floor is an oval stained glass window of an Eagle. I had never noticed that Eagle until today.
I thought of the Holy Spirit looking down on the pope. And then I thought how truly blessed we are to have God above guide our nation through a revolution, a civil war and many other massive conflicts, plus the unique turmoil that each decade seems to bring.
Since its founding, our nation has never faced a foreign military occupation, been physically divided by a wall, split off into other countries or had the root form of government overturned. Truly, God has and continues to bless America. And today was a very special blessing.
David A. Herbst, a lifelong Catholic, graduated from LMU in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.