New Orleans Saints Owner Tom Benson, along with his wife, Gayle, and Saints' Owner/Executive Vice President Rita Benson LeBlanc, were among those that had the privilege of welcoming His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to our Nation's Capital on April 16 during the Pope's first visit to the United States.
Mr. and Mrs. Benson and Ms. Benson LeBlanc were among a select group of dignitaries, business and political leaders, as well as key bi-partisan political officials to welcome just the second Pontiff to visit The White House. The Pope's visits represented the first time a Pope has been to The White House since President Carter welcomed Pope John Paul II in October of 1979. The Bensons and Ms. Benson LeBlanc were part of a welcoming contingent that included Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife Mrs. Lynne Cheney, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.
"We elected to make the trip to The White House and embraced the opportunity to witness The Pontiff because of our family's deep commitment to Faith," said Mr. Benson. "Faith is a very important part of our lives and the opportunity to see Pope Benedict XVI touched us deeply. We were honored to be in his presence, particularly at such a prestigious place such as The White House."
President George W. Bush welcomed the Pontiff with opening remarks on The South Lawn of The White House in front of the aforementioned dignitaries, as well as esteemed members of the Catholic clergy, ecumenical representatives, local Catholic school children, and members of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sisters of the Poor and the Knights of Columbus.
The Bensons, amongst the most ardent world-wide philanthropic supporters of Catholic Charities, were seated in chairs of honor close to the podium where both President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI spoke.
The experience, according to the Bensons, was particularly moving. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime and something that we will always remember and cherish. We feel fortunate to be able to share our good fortune with the people of our community and pass along what a truly memorable and touching experience it has been."
Of special significance was the recognition Pope Benedict XVI bestowed upon the City of New Orleans in his concluding remarks in his address to United States bishops gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when The Pontiff made a very special gift to the people of New Orleans.
"Before leaving, I would like to pause and acknowledge the immense suffering endured by the people of God in the Archdiocese of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina, as well as their courage in the challenging work of rebuilding," said the Holy Father. The Pontiff then presented Most Reverend Alfred Clifton Hughes, the 13th Archbishop of New Orleans, with a special Chalice from the Holy Father. In the presentation of the holy gift, Pope Benedict XVI told Hughes that he hoped the chalice would be a sign of prayerful solidarity with the faithful of New Orleans.
"This is a very unusual acknowledgement," said Archbishop Hughes after the address. "Usually when the pope visits a diocese, he leaves a gift for the people who have hosted him. To be recognized in this way is the Holy Father sending a message of solidarity with the people of New Orleans and a message of genuine care and love from a father the people of the Archdiocese."