The second visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States was radically different in many ways from the first. President Ronald Reagan had invited the Pope to make a pastoral visit this time and the United Nations was not involved. Since the last visit in 1979 both the Pope and the President were survivors of assassination attempts and so security concerns were ratcheted up significantly. More people and dioceses wanted the Pope even though the cost to the host diocese ran at least three million dollars a day and with nine years in office behind him, every US Church agency wanted a piece of the action. Disney World wanted him desperately for a meeting with the youth of the world at EPCOT (making me one of the few Floridians to ever say “no” to Disney and live to tell of it).
In Rome my dear friend Archbishop Marcinkus had been replaced by a new team of papal advance members led by the Jesuit head of Vatican Radio, Father Roberto Tucci, SJ who is now a cardinal. Assisting him were two of the finest men one would wish to work with, Monsignor Emil Tscherrig from the Secretariat of State and Dr. Alberto Gasbari from Vatican Radio. But John Paul remained the same, just a little older. There were two preparatory meetings with him, which included lunch in his apartment, and a meeting of all the host bishops and the archbishops of the United States with him in Rome in advance of the meeting. Tensions were running somewhat high as agendas were beginning to emerge in the United States. In the visit of 1979, only an address by Sister Theresa Kane, the head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had raised some concerns but I am certain that the Pope did not hear her. Little known to anyone at the time was that the young pope was near deaf in one ear and the sound in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was not advantageous for him to hear. Almost every picture ever taken with him never shows him looking at the person but turned so he could hear with his good ear.
But it seemed in 1987 everyone wanted an opportunity to speak to him, hoping to elicit a favorable response. So Monsignor Frank McNulty of Newark addressed him on behalf of priests in Miami, Donna Hanson, a lay woman from Spokane, Washington addressed him in San Francisco, Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop Quinn, Archbishop Pilarczyk and Archbishop Weakland addressed him in Los Angeles, the National Catholic Education Association, the Catholic Health Association, and many others spoke their concerns. The Holy Father always had a prepared response as those writing for him had advance looks at the texts.
Three things gave him special energy in this visit. Although earlier in the day for the first and only time in his entire pontificate his Mass was interrupted and rained out in Miami, he was at his best that day in Columbia, South Carolina on the campus of that state’s University. He could lot believe the tens of thousands of students in a state he knew to be 1% Catholic would gather on the quadrangle and cheer for him and remain while he conducted a ninety minute ecumenical and interreligious exchange with religious leaders from throughout the United States. There were as many students still there when he exited as when he went in and he commented to me, “These young people, they are not Catholic?” Later he and Billy Graham were to share the stage in the football stadium for a truly ecumenical prayer service, which was frowned upon by some of those travelling with him from Rome.
He also enjoyed a meeting with Native Americans in Phoenix, which included their ritual blessing with an eagle feather, also causing some alacrity with his travelling party that a largely pagan sign would be used with him but something, which clearly he enjoyed.
And as in 1979 at Madison Square Garden, in 1987 the meeting with the young people of New Orleans and elsewhere who would fill the vast Superdome brought him special happiness. He was more comfortable and at ease with kids than with bishops by far. Their spontaneous response to his obvious thrill of being with them and their love for him drew them closer to him always.
Popes carry burdens of soul, which few others have to carry. The 1987 visit was right when the AIDS pandemic was spreading and becoming better known in the U.S. Church teaching on condom use and abstinence were not well received in many quarters and to those involved in AIDS ministry and even to those suffering from the disease, the Church in general and the Pope especially seemed insensitive, uncaring, even cruel. When at the old Serra Mission in San Francisco at a prayer service for those with AIDS the pope picked up a child with aids and hugged an adult and embraced him, hearts melted and compassion marked the Gospel. It was quite a moment for me, one that I had helped arrange with the assistance of my Roman colleagues but somewhat looked askance at by others.
John Paul II arrived in Miami with a long and warm meeting between two men nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet and it ended with Vice-President George H. W. Bush offering farewell remarks in Detroit, a city added at the insistence of Archbishop Edmund Szoka which required flying back two thirds of the way across the U.S. and then West again into the Northwest Territory to Fort Simpson in Canada to keep a date he had to cancel several years prior due to fog precluding the landing of his plane at that time. The Holy Father was clearly weakened by his horrible moment with history and not exactly the same as in 1979 but he kept a hectic daily schedule nonetheless and there was always that time for meditation and prayer. Bone tired at midday, on this trip with a scheduled brief rest he would recover well enough to keep a schedule that would kill me at his age, drawing strength from inside himself and at prayer, never wishing to disappoint anyone, and renewed by the adulation of the masses of people who came to pray, listen and reflect with him, especially the young. On both occasions he was impressed with the vitality of the Church in the United States and liked the manner in which we prayed. He mentioned this to the officers and I after his trip in the Fall of 1987 at lunch with him in Rome. For this trip I asked Bishop Larkin if I could have the services of Father John Tapp to assist essentially in the care and feeding of the papal entourage who came with the Pope from Rome and he had his hands full. Also I hired a young lay man from Indiana to work for a year and a half with the Secret Service and the USCC Communications office in arranging for the needs of the local and traveling press (about 300 travelled with us on the full ten day trip). His name was Paul Etienne and he is now the Bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
On the TWA 747 in Detroit I climbed the steps once again. This time he was ready for me having been reminded by someone of my quip in Washington in 1979 that he could come back but not too soon. He gave me that half smile and said, “Father, will I be welcome again?” Off he went to Fort Simpson and my life returned to normal.