Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States is well under way, but writing as I am, several days in advance, how could anyone know what surpriseswill crop up, what he’ll say, what the reaction will be? The anticipation has been at a fever-pitch and to be expected. One commentator wondered why this papal visit was attracting so much more attention than, say, Pope Benedict’s visit in 2008. Pope Francis, since his election in 2013, has captivated worldwide attention by way of his personality, his tone, his message. How could a visit by this man not generate euphoric anticipation and celebration!
And while a few other popes have visited the United States, it’s hardly commonplace. A caller to C-SPAN the other day spoke, somewhat negatively, of papal visits being a fairly regular occurrence for “the last hundred years or so.” Well, not quite. While Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago did build an elaborate edifice of concrete and brick upon which he intended to celebrate Mass with Pope Pius XI in the 1930s, or so the legend goes, the pope never came. It would have taken him weeks to make the journey.
The first papal visit actually occurred just 50 years ago this October, when Pope Paul VI traveled to New York; he spoke to the United Nations and celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium. Such a liturgy — in a baseball stadium! — was unprecedented at the time. Furthermore, a pope hadn’t traveled outside Italy since 1809 and no pope had ever visited the Western Hemisphere. Francis, of course, is the first pope to come from our portion of the world.
Pope John Paul II visited the United States seven times between 1979 and 1999. I was a sophomore in college during that first visit. A classmate and I arranged for a seat on a bus traveling from Eau Claire to Chicago. Considering that only one pope had ever done it before, this visit by John Paul was being declared “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” How could we pass it up! There have been a half dozen similar opportunities to be part of a papal experience in the succeeding years and I’ve always declined. How can you have more than one “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
It would have been tough to surpass that first venture. That October day in Grant Park was simply glorious. The long waits, oppressive crowds, onerous security, merciless weather and other undesirable features that have marred some papal events in intervening years were not apparent that day. The Catholic Church of Chicago, masters of liturgy, knew exactly how to pull off such a celebration — with a pope, hundreds of bishops and priests and thousands of people. That day’s celebration included what, I think, was one of the first Rites of Acceptance of Catechumens in the United States. None of the people I was with knew what it was.
I still have photos of that day, the pope a speck of white far, far in the distance. My friend and I, both reporters for our school newspaper, were drafted to write something about the adventure. Even our non-Catholic editors realized the visit’s significance. And so the two of us labored long into the night trying to craft a perfectly phrased portrayal of our adventure. The essay we produced was horrible, but what we tried to describe was an amazing experience that could be repeated but never duplicated.
When Pope Francis departs for Rome Sunday night there will be a million or so more people who’ve had this “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” There may be similar opportunities, but I have a hunch it will be a long time before our Church in the United States realizes anything quite as momentous and memorable as what’s happened this week. TL