Recalling St John Paul II’s seven visits to the United States

Recalling St John Paul II’s seven visits to the United States

St. John Paul II at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 21, 1981. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano.
St. John Paul II at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 21, 1981. Credit: L'Osservatore Romano.

.- St. John Paul II was the most traveled pope in history, logging some 700,000 miles and visiting nearly 130 countries.

One of the first countries the pope visited after his election was the United States. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he had visited the US in 1976, two years before his election, stopping at places such as Michigan, Ohio, and Montana, and was eager to return.

Over the course of his nearly 27-year pontificate, St. John Paul II would make seven visits to the US— five of significant length, and two brief stopovers during which he nevertheless left a lasting impression on the memories of the locals.

St. John Paul II died April 2, 2005. On the anniversary of the saint’s death, we take a look back at his seven visits to the United States.

Visit 1, October 1-9, 1979

Where: Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Chicago, Washington, D.C.

St. John Paul II's first visit to the United States as pope was a whirlwind six-city tour that began with a gathering of 100,000 at Boston Common. He then went to New York where he held a youth rally at Madison Square Garden, gave a speech at the United Nations and celebrated Mass before a congregation of 80,000 at Yankee Stadium. He also received a ticker-tape parade in Philadelphia.

After a warm welcome in Chicago, St. John Paul II made his way to Des Moines, ostensibly after a Catholic Iowa farmer wrote to the pope to invite him to see life in “rural America, the heartland and breadbasket of our nation.” A crowd of 350,000 greeted him at a farm just outside the city.

The visit also marked the first time a pope had entered the White House, as he met with President Jimmy Carter in Washington. The two leaders discussed situations in the Philippines, China, Europe, South Korea, and the Middle East, and the pope emphasized to Carter the need for the United States to keep ties open to the largely Catholic people of Eastern Europe, then under the throes of Communism.

Finally, St. John Paul II celebrated Mass on the National Mall.

What the pope said:

“Dear young people: do not be afraid of honest effort and honest work; do not be afraid of the truth. With Christ's help, and through prayer, you can answer his call, resisting temptations and fads, and every form of mass manipulation. Open your hearts to the Christ of the Gospels—to his love and his truth and his joy. Do not go away sad!” -Mass at Boston Common

“Fourteen years ago my great predecessor Pope Paul VI spoke from this podium. He spoke memorable words, which I desire to repeat today: ‘No more war, war never again! Never one against the other,’ or even ‘one above the other,’ but always, on every occasion, ‘with each other.’” -Address to the United Nations

“We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the twentieth century stands at our doors. In the light of the parable of Christ, riches and freedom mean a special responsibility. Riches and freedom create a special obligation. And so, in the name of the solidarity that binds us all together in a common humanity, I again proclaim the dignity of every human person: the rich man and Lazarus are both human beings, both of them equally created in the image and likeness of God, both of them equally redeemed by Christ, at a great price, the price of ‘the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pt 1 :19).’” -Mass at Yankee Stadium

“To all of you who are farmers and all who are associated with agricultural production I want to say this: the Church highly esteems your work. Christ himself showed his esteem for agricultural life when he described God his Father as the "vinedresser" (Jn 15 :1). You cooperate with the Creator, the "vinedresser", in sustaining and nurturing life. You fulfill the command of God given at the very beginning: "Fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1 :28). Here in the heartland of America, the valleys and hills have been blanketed with grain, the herds and the flocks have multiplied many times over. By hard work you have become masters of the earth and you have subdued it.” -Mass in Des Moines

“All human beings ought to value every person for his or her uniqueness as a creature of God, called to be a brother or sister of Christ by reason of the Incarnation and the universal Redemption. For us, the sacredness of human life is based on these premises. And it is on these same premises that there is based our celebration of life—all human life. This explains our efforts to defend human life against every influence or action that threatens or weakens it, as well as our endeavors to make every life more human in all its aspects. And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened.” -Mass on the National Mall

Visit 2, February 26, 1981

Where: Stopover in Anchorage

The pope’s first visit to Alaska was brief— a stopover lasting just over four hours on his way back to Rome after a pastoral visit to the Philippines, Guam, and Japan— but left a lasting impression.

An estimated 100,000 people came to downtown Anchorage to see the pope, which remains the largest gathering of people in the history of the state.

Then-Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage recalled that as he was escorting the pope downtown, he made a special point of greeting the elderly who waved at him out of the windows of a senior living facility.

When he arrived at Holy Name Cathedral, he took the time to greet the diabled and elderly who had come to see him. One disabled child— who died shortly after the encounter— handed him a bouquet of forget-me-nots; St. John Paul II made a point of mentioning the child and the flowers the next time he visited Alaska, saying that “her loving gesture is not forgotten.”

The visit "pulled a lot of Catholics out of the woodwork we didn't know were Catholic" and inspired them back to the practice of their faith, Archbishop Hurley told the archdiocesan newspaper.

What the pope said:

“My brothers and sisters in Christ: Never doubt the vital importance of your presence in the Church, the vital importance of religious life and of the ministerial priesthood in the mission of proclaiming the mercy of God. Through your daily life, which is often accompanied by the sign of the cross, and through faithful service and persevering hope, you show your deep faith in the merciful love of God, and bear witness to that love, which is more powerful than evil and stronger than death.” -Address to priests and religious in the Anchorage cathedral

Visit 3, May 2, 1984

Where: Stopover in Fairbanks

Once again, Alaska served as a midpoint for the pope between Rome and the Pacific, as he embarked on his pastoral journey to Korea, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Thailand.

This time, St. John Paul II appeared with President Ronald Reagan, who was himself returning from a trip to China, at the Fairbanks airport. During the pope’s brief, three-hour refuelling stop, Reagan praised him as a defender of human freedom, and as a source of "solace, inspiration, and hope."

What the pope said:

“In some ways, Alaska can be considered today as a crossroads of the world...Here in this vast State sixty-five languages are spoken and peoples of many diverse backgrounds find a common home with the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians. This wonderful diversity provides the context in which each person, each family, each ethnic group is challenged to live in harmony and concord, one with the other. To achieve this aim requires a constant openness to each other on the part of each individual and group. An openness of heart, a readiness to accept differences, and an ability to listen to each other’s viewpoint without prejudice. Openness to others, by its very nature, excludes selfishness in any form. It is expressed in a dialogue that is honest and frank-one that is based on mutual respect. Openness to others begins in the heart.” -Address to authorities and people of Alaska

Visit 4, September 10-19, 1987

Where: Miami, Columbia, SC, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, Detroit

This trip was the longest of St. John Paul II's visits to the US, and his first to the contiguous West Coast. Reagan greeted him once again, this time in Miami.

Notable episodes from the visit included the pope’s Mass in Miami being cut short because of a storm; addressing representatives of black Catholics at the Superdome in New Orleans; attending an ecumenical conference on the University of South Carolina campus; Mass in San Antonio with about 275,000 in attendance; touring a Catholic hospital and attending the Tekakwitha Conference— a national gathering of Native American Catholics— at the Arizona State Fair Grounds Coliseum in Phoenix; and addressing representatives from the communications industry in Los Angeles.

Though the pope encountered some protests in San Francisco, and crowds were not as large as some had expected, his visit still drew at least 300,000 in California.

What the pope said:

“God loves you! God loves you all, without distinction, without limit. He loves those of you who are elderly, who feel the burden of the years. He loves those of you who are sick, those who are suffering from AIDS and from AIDS-Related Complex. He loves the relatives and friends of the sick and those who care for them. He loves us all with an unconditional and everlasting love.” -Address at Mission Dolores Basilica, San Francisco

“The obligation to truth and its completeness applies not only to the coverage of news, but to all your work. Truth and completeness should characterize the content of artistic expression and entertainment. You find a real meaning in your work when you exercise your role as collaborators of truth – collaborators of truth in the service of justice, fairness and love.” -Address to people of the communications industry, Los Angeles

“From the very beginning, the Creator bestowed his gifts on each people. It is clear that stereotyping. prejudice, bigotry and racism demean the human dignity which comes from the hand of the Creator and which is seen in variety and diversity. I encourage you, as native people belonging to the different tribes and nations in the East, South, West and North, to preserve and keep alive your cultures, your languages, the values and customs which have served you well in the past and which provide a solid foundation for the future. Your customs that mark the various stages of life, your love for the extended family, your respect for the dignity and worth of every human being, from the unborn to the aged, and your stewardship and care of the earth: these things benefit not only yourselves but the entire human family. Your gifts can also be expressed even more fully in the Christian way of life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is at home in every people. It enriches, uplifts and purifies every culture. All of us together make up the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Church. We should all be grateful for the growing unity, presence, voice and leadership of Catholic Native Americans in the Church today.” -Address to Native American Catholics

“I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith, together with a growing immigrant community, you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts. Always profess proudly before the whole Church and the whole world your love for God’s word; it is a special blessing which you must forever treasure as a part of your heritage. Help us all to remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one’s life in accordance with it – and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive – as Jesus forgave – and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights.” -Address to black Catholics

“America, your deepest identity and truest character as a nation is revealed in the position you take towards the human person. The ultimate test of your greatness in the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenceless ones.” -Farewell Address

Visit 5: World Youth Day, August 12-15, 1993

Where: Denver

At the time it was chosen, Denver seemed to many to be an odd choice for a host for World Youth Day— the international gathering of young people that he himself had instituted in 1985. The city was experiencing a surge in crime, and many feared that the septuagenarian pope would not be successful in attracting young people to the event.

Nevertheless, World Youth Day in Denver was a huge success, with an estimated 750,000 people attending the final Mass at Cherry Creek State Park. Young people from all over the world showed their willingness to sacrifice and experience pilgrimage by lodging in parish halls en route to Denver, trudging through the heat to Cherry Creek State Park, sleeping on the ground there, and enduring other discomforts.

Upon St. John Paul II death in 20115, then-Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the Pope’s visit to Denver was “a Transfiguration for the Church in Northern Colorado - a moment when Jesus smiled on us in a special, joyful, vivid way and invited us into his mission to the world.”

What the pope said:

“Pilgrims set out for a destination. In our case it is not so much a place or a shrine that we seek to honor. Ours is a pilgrimage to a modern city, a symbolic destination: the "metropolis" is the place which determines the life–style and the history of a large part of the human family at the end of the twentieth century. This modern city of Denver is set in the beautiful natural surroundings of the Rocky Mountains, as if to put the work of human hands in relationship with the work of the Creator. We are therefore searching for the reflection of God not only in the beauty of nature but also in humanity’s achievements and in each individual person. On this pilgrimage our steps are guided by the words of Jesus Christ: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’” -Welcome ceremony at Mile High Stadium

“Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (Cfr. Rom 1,16). It is the time to preach it from the rooftops (Cfr. Matt 10,27). Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’ It is you who must ‘go out into the byroads’ (Matt 22,9) and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It was never meant to be hidden away in private. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our heavenly Father.” -Mass at Cherry Creek State Park

Visit 6, October 4-9, 1995

Where: Newark, East Rutherford, NJ, New York City, Yonkers,  NY, Baltimore

This marked the pope’s second visit to New York City, and he visited several other cities on the Eastern seaboard. It was his first visit to New Jersey, where he made stops in Newark— celebrating Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral— and East Rutherford.

Upon returning to New York, the pope celebrated Mass at Giants Stadium, and also addressed the United Nations for a second time.

What the pope said:

“Freedom is not simply the absence of tyranny or oppression. Nor is freedom a licence to do whatever we like. Freedom has an inner ‘logic’ which distinguishes it and ennobles it: freedom is ordered to the truth, and is fulfilled in man's quest for truth and in man's living in the truth. Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and, in political life, it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation upon freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person — a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all — is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom's future.” -Address to the United Nations

“As a Christian, my hope and trust are centered on Jesus Christ, the two thousandth anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated at the coming of the new millennium. We Christians believe that in his Death and Resurrection were fully revealed God's love and his care for all creation. Jesus Christ is for us God made man, and made a part of the history of humanity. Precisely for this reason, Christian hope for the world and its future extends to every human person. Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage others in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one and indeed, if anything, with a special concern for the weakest and the suffering. Thus, as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.” -Address to the United Nations

“At the end of your National Anthem, one finds these words: "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’” America: may your trust always be in God and in none other. And then, "The star–spangled banner in triumph shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Thank you, and God bless you all!” -Farewell address at the Baltimore airport

Visit 7, January 26-27, 1999

Where: St. Louis

The pope’s final visit to the United States took him to St. Louis, sometimes called “The Rome of the West” for its many Catholic churches. His visit included a youth rally at an arena, Mass at the city’s stadium, and vespers at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

Along the way, he met with President Bill Clinton, civil rights leader Rosa Parks, and baseball players Mark McGuire and Stan Musial.

He asked then-governor Mel Carnahan to spare the life of triple-murderer Darrell Mease, whose original execution date had been set for that day— which the governor did, commuting his sentence to life without parole.

Though the pope’s age— 78— showed during his 31-hour visit, his enthusiasm and joy attracted thousands of people and left a lasting impression on the city. The Mass he celebrated at the then-Trans World Dome is said to be the largest indoor gathering ever held in the U.S.

What the pope said:

“I am told that there was much excitement in St. Louis during the recent baseball season, when two great players (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) were competing to break the home-run record. You can feel the same great enthusiasm as you train for a different goal: the goal of following Christ, the goal of bringing his message to the world. Each one of you belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to you.

At Baptism you were claimed for Christ with the Sign of the Cross; you received the Catholic faith as a treasure to be shared with others. In Confirmation, you were sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and strengthened for your Christian mission and vocation. In the Eucharist, you receive the food that nourishes you for the spiritual challenges of each day.

I am especially pleased that so many of you had the opportunity today to receive the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this Sacrament you experience the Savior’s tender mercy and love in a most personal way, when you are freed from sin and from its ugly companion which is shame. Your burdens are lifted and you experience the joy of new life in Christ.

Your belonging to the Church can find no greater expression or support than by sharing in the Eucharist every Sunday in your parishes. Christ gives us the gift of his body and blood to make us one body, one spirit in him, to bring us more deeply into communion with him and with all the members of his Body, the Church. Make the Sunday celebration in your parishes a real encounter with Jesus in the community of his followers: this is an essential part of your ‘training in devotion” to the Lord!’ -Address to young people

“I will always remember St. Louis. I will remember all of you.” -Final words at the cathedral of St. Louis

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