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Americans Had Hard Time Resisting Pope’s Charms During 1979 Visit

HARRY F. ROSENTHALSeptember 5, 1987

Undated (AP) _ Pope John Paul II enchanted Americans - Catholics and non-Catholics alike - when he came to this country in 1979, and even those who couldn’t agree with his uncompromising messages found it hard to resist his charm.

Here was, after all, a pious man who was willing to be unpompous. He’d make little cooing sounds of approval at children, he’d respond to cheers by saying ″The pope loves YOU,″ he’d waggle his fingers like an indulgent uncle and scoop up babies like a politician on the stump. So taken were they with this one-time actor who became pope, that an auditorium filled with 20,000 teenagers broke into a chant: ″Rack ‘em up, stack ‘em up, bust ’em in two 3/8 Holy Father, we’re for you.″

For Americans, Roman Catholics and non-Catholics, the 1979 visit of the pope was clearly something out of the ordinary. He was a superstar, a crowd- pleaser, from the moment that he stepped off his plane in rainy Boston, kissed the ground and said ″I greet you, America the Beautiful.″

The numbers of people who braved the elements and crushing humanity to catch a glimpse of the first non-Italian pope in 455 years were extraordinary, even when adjusted for local pride. Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago each claimed he had been seen there by more than a million people, and pope watchers still debate which place holds the record: Phoenix Park in Ireland where the faithful were said to number 1.2 million, or Grant Park in Chicago, or was it Krakow?

This most traveled of popes has set himself an ambitious schedule in the United States, beginning with a personal welcome from President and Mrs. Reagan in Miami on Thursday, and then heading westward with event-filled stops in Columbia, S.C.; New Orleans; San Antonio, Texas; Phoenix, Ariz.; Los Angeles; Monterey, Calif.; and San Francisco. His getaway stop is Detroit on Sept. 19.

A city-a-day is what John Paul did, too, in 1979. He got off the plane - dubbed Shepherd I - in Boston, his red cape flapping in the breeze, and told his welcomers in a robotic, toneless English, ″America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.″

His first American Mass, in Boston Common, was celebrated in a bone- chilling downpour that failed to hold down the numbers of celebrants. The event produced a remarkable act of unselfishness: The worshippers folded their umbrellas so all could see. Around the fringes there were the soggy signs of discontent. ″Your Gay Children Love You″ said a banner, in Polish. And the pope’s motorcade detoured to avoid a demonstration protesting the shooting of a black youth at a football practice a few days before.

The next day, the well-known slogan got a new twist. New York loved the pope. And he, in turn, spoke of the riches and poverty of people and nations. He saw the broken windows of Harlem and told a black audience to be ″the messengers of hope.″ Along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Avenue, Ann Sommers told a reporter ″I didn’t bring anything for the pope to bless except my 9-year-old son, Cornelius.″

John Paul made a speech in the splendor of the United Nations, but he also mounted a platform amid the burned-out, vandalized ruins of the South Bronx whose residents, he said, deserved his special attention. He read from a text illuminated by a flashlight held by the late Cardinal Terence Cooke.

About 19,000 teen-agers in Madison Square Garden not only gave him a pep rally reception, but also presented him with a guitar, a ″Big Apple″ T- shirt, and a pair of blue jeans. He, in turn, made a cooing, siren-like noise into his microphone - it sounded like ″woo-woo″ - and a priest explained that was a custom in Poland when parents want to show approval of their children.

The pope was a guest of U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim at a reception, an irony eight years later due to Waldheim’s visit to the Vatican, which tainted the pope’s relations with the Jewish community.

The pontiff stood in Battery Park, with the mist-shrouded Statue of Liberty in the background, and declared to the nation of immigrants: ″Freedom and justice will bring a new dawn of hope for the present generation as it has done before.″ His visit, of course, did not please everyone in New York. Said a hand-held sign: ″Welcome JPII, from women-haters, homophobes and back-alley abortionists everywhere - you’re one of us.″

Next came Philadelphia, welcoming the pontiff with the toll of church bells and cries in the Italian community of ″Papa, Papa.″ America’s red, white and blue, Poland’s red and white, and the gold and white of the Vatican fluttered in the breeze. In the homily of his Mass at Logan Circle, the pope stressed his belief in priestly celibacy. And the next day, before 24,000 priests, nuns and laymen, he reiterated the church’s position on barring women from the priesthood. Later, a sister from the Immaculate Order of Mary in Philadelphia, asking not to be named, said ″I honor his position, but the future may hold something different for women.″

His next stop on the pastoral visit was a rolling hilltop in Iowa where 350,000 people - a crowd exceeding the population of Des Moines - waited to hear him celebrate the Mass at an altar built of century-old barn timbers. ″Long live the pope,″ the congregation shouted. ″The land is God’s gift,″ said the spirtual successor to St. Peter. ″It is also man’s responsibility.″ He reminded farmers to conserve the land for future generations and to be generous to the hungry of the world.

Later, John Paul came to Chicago, the most Polish of American cities, and there - before 1.5 million people in Grant Park - reaffirmed the Catholc ban on contraception, his first such pronouncement. Surveys at the time indicated that the ban on birth control was being ignored by about 80 percent of the nation’s Catholics. Despite the unpopular message, however, the pope was cheered everywhere he went. As happened every night of his tour, the pontiff could not pull himself away from the people. That evening he waved to the thousands waiting outside the home of the cardinal where he was staying, kissed a baby and went inside. The crowd remained and soon the pope reappeared on a balcony.

″You ... should ... go ... to ... sleep,″ he chastised. When the crowd resisted, he said ″I repeat my suggestion,″ and the people responded, ″You ... should ... go ... sleep.″ He put his hands together in a prayerful gesture and brought them up to his cheek, indicating he was tired.

The pope’s last stop in America was in Washington, where he became the first pontiff to visit the White House. He pleaded with President Jimmy Carter for an end to the nuclear arms race that threatens to destroy the world. Carter, in turn, hailed John Paul as ″a pilgrim of peace.″ At a reception, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, then dean of the diplomatic corps, led the line.

The next day, the pontiff was directly challenged to admit women to ″all ministries of our church,″ including the priesthood, by Sister Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. ″I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and to respond to the voices coming from the women of this country whose desire is for serving in and through the church as fully participating members,″ said the nun, kneeling before the pope. He laid his hand on her head in a gesture of blessing but made no response. By his silence, the pope stood firm on his declaration in Philadelphia that the Catholic church never has, nor can it, nor will it ordain women as priests. As he said in Philadelphia, limiting the priesthood to men was the way ″by which God has chosen to shepherd his flock.″

The pope celebrated Mass on the grassy mall that stretches three miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. ″My final prayer is this,″ he said, ″that God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become - and truly be and long remain - one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.″

As he stepped back onto Shepherd I for the flight to Rome, he said, one last time, ″God bless America 3/8 God bless America.″

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