History of Papal: Visits to the US

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Pope, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Paul VI, papal visits, the US

The United States boasts the third largest Catholic community in the world but it has hardly ever appeared on the map of papal trips. Apart from Benedict XVI, who is arriving in Washington today, only two other popes visited America: Paul VI and John Paul II.

The first papal pilgrimage to the US took place during the pontificate of Paul VI. The former archbishop of Milan was the first head of the Catholic Church to travel by plane and that is what allowed him to set precedence in the Vatican, visiting over 20 countries on six continents. On October 4, 1965, two years after ascending the throne of St. Peter, Paul VI landed in the United States. “Greetings to you, America! The first pope to set foot upon your land blesses you with all His heart. He renews, as it were, the gesture of your discoverer, Christopher Columbus, when he planted the Cross of Christ in this blessed soil,” said Paul VI during the welcoming ceremony at Kennedy Airport in New York.

Although the crux of his one-day visit was his “give peace a chance” speech, delivered at the New York headquarters of the United Nations, the pope’s modesty and straightforwardness managed to win the hearts and minds of previously suspicious Americans. It was during his farewell address that Paul VI pronounced those memorable words: “To America, Our prayerful wishes for prosperity and peace, under the rule of law, in concord with the other nations of the world; and Our heartfelt blessings upon its people, their families, their government, their homes and schools and churches, one Nation, under God, free and indivisible. God bless America! God bless you all!”

It would be 14 years until another pope visited the United States. John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in almost five centuries, decided that the best way to convey his message was through direct contact with believers and atheists alike. Soon after being elected in 1978 he embarked on his ambitious program of going to as many countries as possible. Among the priorities was America. As early as October 1979, John Paul II arrived in the United States – this time for longer than one day. Apart from traditionally Catholic cities such as Boston and Chicago, the pope also visited New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, and Washington, DC.

In Chicago alone he drew a record audience of 1.2 million people of all races and denominations. The divided nation, still scarred by the Vietnam War and economic problems, seemed to listen to this foreign leader who, in thick English, spoke of the need of forgiveness and unity. “Coming together around the altar of sacrifice to break the bread of the Holy Eucharist with the successor of Peter, you testified to this, even deeper reality – to your unity as members of the people of God, though many are one body in Christ.”

Pope John Paul II would come to the United States six more times. Sometimes it would be just a short stop on his way to another country – like in 1981, when he landed in Anchorage, Alaska, for several hours. Sometimes it would be a longer pilgrimage, as in 1987 when the pope spent nine days in America, during which visited eight cities on the east and west coast. Wherever he went, he met with the reaction similar to that of a man from Detroit who told The Detroit News: “This is great. Since he is in our neighborhood we thought it would be nice to see him. He is one of the most powerful, influential people in the world.” As surprising as it sounds the nation, which less than 30 years ago hardly swallowed the first Catholic president, seemed to love John Paul II. “The Protestant’s Pope,” they dubbed him, meaning that like none of his predecessors could he understand Christians of other denominations.

Judging from the coverage that Pope Benedict XVI has lately received from the national media, his visit is widely anticipated by not only Catholics. Whether he will be able to move Americans the way his predecessors did remains a question. One thing is certain: we should listen to what he has to say.

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Krzys Wasilewski, while living in Poland, completing his masters degree in International Relations, was seduced by English Literature.