Several students who are spending the semester working on Capitol Hill attended the event at the West Lawn as Pope Francis blessed the crowd after speaking to Congress.
Katie Lingafelter's alarm went off at 4 a.m. on Thursday.
She was one of half-dozen congressional interns from Texas Tech University who put on their suits and dresses and headed to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol where, hours later, Pope Francis walked out onto a balcony and greeted the crowd of thousands.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, several of the interns said.
“I think this particular pope, Pope Francis, is able to resonate with our generation beyond denominational boundaries,” said Lingafelter, an energy commerce major from Hobbs, New Mexico, who is interning in Congressman Joe Barton's office. “I am not Catholic; however, I really admire and am inspired by Pope Francis because he is so progressive in regard to many social issues, much like our generation.
“He is bringing to light the accepting and forgiving nature that faith and the church are supposed to have.”
Several other students joined Lingafelter in the early morning trip to the West Lawn. Jared Vander-Dussen, a political science major who is an intern for Sen. Ted Cruz, said the group arrived on the West Lawn just before 6 a.m. They laid down a sheet on the grass, in view of one of the many jumbo screens set up around the area, and watched Pope Francis address the joint session of Congress. The pope didn't shy away from controversial tactics.
“Pope Francis is very political, making statements on issues that are affecting our country, such as immigration and the death penalty,” Vander-Dussen said.
Even though he knew the pope was coming, Vander-Dussen didn't think he would have a chance of seeing him until a few days before the papal visit. The administrative assistant in Cruz's office asked if he wanted a ticket to go, and realizing he'd probably never have the chance to see the pope again, he said yes. Although the West Lawn of the Capitol is large, the group garnered a spot close enough for a good view of Pope Francis, who addressed the people outside shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday.
Lingafelter said she was inspired by much of what the pope did during his time in Washington, including visiting a group of homeless people during lunch and greeting the masses who crowded his routes. She also appreciated that he made some of his speeches in English, although he isn't fluent. She attributed it to his desire to connect with all people.
“The pope took the time to come and pray for the entire crowd,” she said. “He also was extremely invested in the huge crowds who came to see him. He kissed babies, prayed over the sickly, hugged followers and greeted the people in ways most politicians would never take the time to do.
“It is honestly amazing that so many individuals respect and admire the pope, regardless of their opinions or religion. His demeanor, which radiates even from a distance, brings together so many people.”
Lyric Kilpatrick, an agricultural communications major from Moody who is interning for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, said she enjoyed meeting other people who had come to the West Lawn to see the pope as well. All of them wanted the chance to experience this moment in history.
“Pope Francis spoke knowledgeably on all political topics that are being dealt with in our government today, and he truly had a way with words,” she said. “He knew how to speak about the policies and topics without stating them and still made his stance known. This experience will always be the one thing I'll remember most about my time on Capitol Hill.”
One other Texas Tech intern attended as well. Erin Wallace, a social work major from Austin who is interning for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, was raised Catholic and hoped to see the pope. She's admired Pope Francis since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church because of his ability to connect to all types of people and spread hope to people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, worldwide.
However, Wallace was scheduled to work all day. Her getting to attend was a lucky break. Instead of normal office work, Jackson Lee assigned her to go with some of the congresswoman's guests to ensure they were taken care of at the papal visit.
She described quiet moments of pure joy as the thousands of people listened, intermixed with overwhelming emotions when people screamed and cried.
“I felt very lucky just to be in his presence and see him bless the crowd, myself included,” Wallace said. “The atmosphere of the whole event was truly heart-warming. For a few moments in the Capitol and on the lawn, there were no political parties and no judgment, only a group of open hearts and open minds.
“It was a beautiful thing to sit outside and soak up the warm sun and feel the palpable love of people from all over the world joined together in celebration.”