WASHINGTON, D.C.—Seminarian Will Frei was up well before the dawn Thursday morning to join classmates from Catholic University on a crowded subway ride.
Barely 12 hours after he got to see Pope Francis celebrate Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Frei was headed to watch the Holy Father’s historic speech before Congress with thousands of others on the west lawn outside the U.S. Capital.
“It felt like we were heading on a walking pilgrimage, because when we came out of the subway we saw all these groups of people headed the same direction,” Frei said. “It was still pitch black outside, which helped with the excitement and a also uncertainty because we didn’t exactly know where we were going to be sitting or standing.”
After a smooth pass through security lines, Frei and the others crowded together on the lawn, where he said they had a beautiful view of a dramatic sunrise that started to streak the sky with orange and pink right about 7 a.m.
The seminarians stood crammed together like sardines with the huge crowd for three hours before Pope Francis’ speech started, but used the time to do morning prayers and have conversations with people around them about Pope Francis’ visit. They also answered questions about what studying for the priesthood is like.
Huge video screens set up around the area came to life as Pope Francis entered the House chambers to deliver to his speech to Congress.
“When he first started speaking, it was so quiet, all those thousands of people wanting to really listen to what the Holy Father had to say,” he said. As the pope mentioned a litany of issues ranging from the death penalty to protecting the environment, Frei said various people in the crowd cheered.
“It was very interesting to see the reaction of the crowd and see that some points were more popular than others,” he said “Unfortunately not everybody was on board with every issue, but that’s expected, and everyone was respectful.”
When the speech ended, Frei said the crowd was initially silent, as if absorbing Pope Francis’ words, and then people started joyfully chanting his name or “Papa, Papa!”
Frei said he was especially impressed that Pope Francis framed his speech around the actions of four American historical figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
“He really showed and shared his knowledge of American culture, and it was interesting he chose two non-Catholics and two Catholics to make his points,” he said.
He said the Holy Father was especially effective because he made his points to Congress in a charitable and diplomatic way.
“He showed the issues that challenge America, and he showed us he believes America can confront these challenges with the help of the Holy Spirit and the help of dedicated men and women,” Frei said. “I think Pope Francis’ speech was a great feat. He was a great representative of the Church and of Christ. He’s showing that the key to evangelization at this point in time is charity and mercy.”