The Papal Coffee Line

This morning at the papal mass at Washington's Nationals Park, the congregation was united on two fronts: the Roman Catholic faith and the need for coffee. Though I had not been on a bus since 2 a.m., as many of the faithful had (my bus from the press center left at 6:30), I shared with them that yearning for caffeine. Yet there was a problem. There wasn't enough coffee to go around for the 46,000 who had gathered here. Let's just say that you can tell a lot about a Christian by the way he handles this very troubling situation.

The line for coffee at first seemed manageable to Mary Ellen Taylor and her daughter, Jill DiSabatino. They were standing right behind me and had started out from Delaware at 3:00 a.m. Taylor's small black backpack was filled with eight pounds of rosaries from her friends, family and co-workers to be blessed by the pope. Here was the rosary from her mother's jewelry box at the nursing home, there were three plastic bags filled with rosaries from her Hispanic employees and a beautiful one from Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Mexico. Like the nuns who arrived on the bus with her, she was afraid her crosses and the rosaries would set off security alarms at the stadium. "If I put all this on I'm going to look like Mr. T," explained Taylor, a devout Catholic who would be seeing a pope for the first time. She also has a clipboard with three pages of lists, one for people she is praying for, one for things she is grateful for and one for people she feels could use some divine inspiration.

About 20 minutes later we were still in line and nowhere near the concession stand, where desperate workers were continuously brewing one single coffee pot that could fill only eight cups per brew. "What a test of faith this is," sighed Taylor, still smiling. "They should have set up the confessionals right here." We chatted a bit about Benedict's reputation as being not quite so, shall we say, charismatic as Pope John Paul II. "But he's still in his beginning years. Who knows how well John Paul was accepted in his first years? We only think of his legacy at this point," suggested DiSabatino. We also had ample time to discuss the sex scandals, which both mother and daughter agreed should be talked about. "I have friends who are not Catholic, and they are afraid to bring it up with me," said DiSabatino. "This brings it out into the open."

Ten minutes later we had crept forward in line about six feet. In front of me was 70-year-old Fran Hamacher, who had arrived yesterday from North Carolina and overnighted with her granddaughter in D.C. I mentioned that it was making the rounds on YouTube that Bush had told the Holy Father, after he had finished speaking at yesterday's White House event, "Thank you, Your Holiness. Awesome speech!" Was that proper? "That wasn't inappropriate at all. It's great," said Hamacher. "He's in America. That's what we say." She agreed that Benedict lacks the flair of John Paul II. "But I've heard it said that John Paul was like the mother who hugs you and says everything is OK; Benedict is the dad who says, 'If you do this and this, then everything will be OK. He was the bad cop to John Paul's good cop for years, and now he's got to try to be both."

We had now been in line exactly 35 minutes. At this point Sister Celeste, a Byzantine Catholic nun from the Sisters of St. Basil the Great church in Pittsburgh, had almost reached the front of the line. How is she feeling today, even after 40 minutes in line for coffee? "Awesome, elated, high on life." (So maybe "awesome" isn't inappropriate, if the nuns say it too.) I asked her what she thought of Bush saying the same to the pope, at a formal ceremony, not in a coffee line. She rolled her eyes but tried to think of the right thing to say. "Hmmmm, let me think of what to say … Let's just say, 'It was from the heart'." She wore a large cross. Had it set off any metal detectors, as the nuns on Taylor's bus had worried? "Nope. I sailed right through security."

"Sister, come on up," offered concession stand worker Addie Brinkley, a lovely African-American woman with a warm smile. "Welcome to our stadium." But the sister still had to wait another 10 minutes for the next pot to brew. Brinkley chatted with us in the meantime. She holds two jobs but begged for half the day off to come here today to serve Danish and coffee during the papal mass. "I wanted to be a part of history here," she says. "I just wish I could help you all out with the coffee problem."

That's when the first little fight broke out. Somehow a number of Catholics had managed to get coffee from the food line. "There are people in the other line who are getting coffee! We were told to only come to this line, and we've been waiting for an hour!" shouted one woman. There was some more heated discussion, and then the servers formed a scrum behind the counter. The rules were laid out more clearly, in favor of the coffee line sufferers. "Sister, what can I get you?" offered Brinkley finally. Sister Celeste held up two fingers, but then, a bit worried she might set off a stampede, held up three fingers close to her chest and looked at me and Brinkley with a wink.

The lead voice in the first skirmish, Pam Weitz, walked toward those of us near the front standing next to Sister Celeste to say, "I apologize. My need for coffee took over. That wasn't very Christian of me. Consider this an act of contrition." One woman who had received her precious cup offered to let the others in line smell it and touch it, offering it like a relic. "Now, that is just not right," said Brinkley, laughing. A few minutes later a sneaky TV reporter was spotted at a nearby cashier, where she was handed … a cup of coffee! The wolves circled. She tried to explain that she had been in the stadium a long time and just needed some caffeine. Needless to say she was forced to give up her cup.

Finally it was my turn. Two coffees, one for me and one for a fellow journalist sitting upstairs in the sealed-off press area (boy, did she miss out on the real action). Brinkley rang me up on her cash register, which displayed "2 X POPE FOOD." I was advised to get a bottle of Dasani water as well, since all the concession stands would soon be shuttered, because there should be no eating before mass. Plus, the water was only $2 and after mass it would go up to $4. Why? A voice behind me in line explained: "It will have been blessed."