WASHINGTON — The preparations under way in expectation of Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States as Pope are monumental.
Behind the scenes, it has involved months of planning, security protocols, committee meetings and visits from the Vatican and U.S. Secret Service. It’s only the second time in history that a Pope has visited the White House.
One concern is transportation throughout Washington during the Pope’s visit. A spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says that it’s no stranger to providing transportation for mega-gatherings.
“We’re the nation’s capital,” said Steven Taubenkibel. “We have 32 years of experience moving people to large gatherings or marches. This will be no different.”
Taubenkibel said that they are working with organizers to make sure that they have the necessary rail cars and personnel to work on the days of the Holy Father’s visit and Mass at Nationals Park. The Transit Authority plans to add at least one additional car per train during the visit.
One difficulty, Taubenkibel admitted, is that the increased traffic on the day of the Mass, April 17, is expected during the morning rush from 5:30-9 a.m.
“We operate 820 rail cars and we’re at maximum capacity load already,” said Taubenkibel. “We’re trying to see if we can add anything else and are identifying our service plans for when the Mass finishes at the ballpark.”
Taubenkibel said that the transit authority is making available a special one-day pass that will allow unlimited access to ride the rail and bus system for $9.
Security is also a major concern.
“The biggest issue we’re all facing is the issue of security,” said Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, where Benedict will address Catholic university and college presidents and diocesan education leaders. “We live in a time where this is the first thing we need to consider. Any time the Pope travels, it’s an extensive proposition.”
In response to security concerns, the university, which was originally scheduled to be closed the day of the Holy Father’s visit, will now be shut down the day before, as well.
“Questions are being raised about whether the Pope will ride in the Popemobile or a limousine,” said Father O’Connell. “We have to be concerned about the buildings around the one he’s visiting, and anyone who will be in a room with the Pope has to go through security pre-screening.”
Naturally, law enforcement agencies have been tight-lipped about their preparations, especially following the news of an audio-taped threat by Osama bin Laden mentioning the Pope. Jeff Ostermayer, spokesman with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that his department will continue to “monitor terrorism and remain vigilant.”
He said that the department does not expect any heightened threat of terrorist actions for an event such as this, and that they are working with the U.S. Secret Service, the lead security providers.
Because Pope Benedict is a head of state, security is being overseen by the Secret Service. In addition to any security brought by the Vatican, the Secret Service will have a detail assigned to the Pope from the moment he lands at Andrews Air Force base until six days later when he departs from New York.
While the Secret Service will be working with federal, state and local law enforcement, the oversight falls to the Secret Service.
“When an event is deemed a National Special Security Event or there is a head of state visiting, the Secret Service assumes the legally mandated role as managers of the security plan,” said Malcolm Wiley, spokesman for the department. “It’s a cooperative effort.”
Second Time in History
The last time a Pope visited the White House was Pope John Paul II’s Oct. 6, 1979, visit with President Jimmy Carter.
Al Eisele, editor-at-large of The Hill, remembers that trip. He was serving as press secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale. Eisele recalled that during the trip, Pope John Paul II stayed at the apostolic delegate’s house across from the vice president’s residence. Pope Benedict will be staying there as well, although now it’s no longer known as the apostolic delegate’s house.
“As a courtesy, the vice president agreed to let the Pope use the helicopter pad at the vice president’s residence to return to Andrews Air Force base for his return-trip back to Rome,” said Eisele. “As part of the deal, the Pope agreed to stop by the vice president’s residence on the way to the pad.”
There was only one hitch.
“We were standing outside the vice president’s residence when we saw the motorcade approach and drive right by,” said Eisele. “Mondale’s face fell. He didn’t think they were going to come.”
According to Eisele, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was standing with them and reassured them that they had simply missed the turn into the driveway. Sure enough, the motorcade returned and Pope John Paul II spent approximately 15 minutes at the vice president’s residence blessing the family and staff.
Father Richard Shmaruk, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Woburn, Mass., not only covered the Pope’s visit to the White House, but broke the story that Pope John Paul II was coming to Washington. He said that even more interesting than the public meeting between Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II was what was going on behind the scenes.
“It was a great and historic event,” said Father Shmaruk. “President Carter had been writing secret letters and had correspondence with the Pope about bringing down communism. They were doing what President Reagan got credit for later on.”
While there isn’t likely secret correspondence between Pope Benedict XVI and President George W. Bush, the White House is looking forward to the meeting.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that the president and the Pope will continue discussions they began during President Bush’s trip to the Vatican in June 2007 on the importance of faith and reason in reaching shared goals.
Stanzel said that the goals include advancing peace throughout the Middle East and other troubled regions, promoting interfaith understanding and strengthening human rights and freedom.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.