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Followers Recall 1979 Papal Visit to Washington


Next week (15-20 April 2008), Pope Benedict XVI makes his first official visit to the United States. He is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House, deliver an address at the United Nations, and celebrate mass at outdoor stadiums in New York and Washington. The Pope will also visit The Catholic University of America; something his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, did on his first trip to the United States as well. VOA's George Dwyer recently spoke with several people about their memories of that historic visit.

The late Pope John Paul II paraded through the streets of Washington on his first visit to the United States as pope in October 1979.

"I remember 1979 as if it were yesterday. It is one of those defining moments in your life where you can say 'I know where I was, I know what I was doing," Frank Persico said. He is Vice President for University Relations at The Catholic University of America. 28 years ago he was a recent graduate, chosen to serve as an usher during the Pope's visit.

Persico spoke about that experience in a film produced by the University: "I had the great privilege of working inside the Crowe Center, which was the old gym at the time, which had been transformed into this beautiful arena for the Pope to be there. And I had the opportunity to stand up front and to direct some of the dignitaries to their seats."

Persico and others in the film speak of the Pope as a man of warmth and tremendous personal magnetism.

"There were just hundreds and hundreds of University students on the steps of the Basilica waiting to see the Pope, huge cheers," recalls Craig Parks, "and he was a very dynamic person and public, and he kind of waded into the crowd."

"And of course I had students, I had students that were Catholic, non-Catholic, Jewish," recalls Elaine Walter. "It was the same experience for all of them. It was just a tremendous sense that overcame all of us."

"I think that one of the things that was most loved about John Paul II was the fact that he was willing to get out and be with the people," Persico said. "Everybody wanted to be around him, and he gained his energy from the crowds, and he took his spirit from the crowds."

Less than two years after the Pope's visit to Washington, he was wounded in an assassination attempt at the Vatican. And though he recovered, his access to the crowds he so enjoyed would never be quite the same again.

John Paul's papacy would continue for another quarter of a century after the shooting. He traveled the world promoting peace and reconciliation, and some historians even credit him with influencing the fall of Communism. In 2005, he died after years of failing health.

Persico believes the signs of what he would come to accomplish as Pope were clear as far back as 1979. "He was able to put a stamp on the papacy right from the beginning and move us forward into the whole new changing world that we are obviously in today," says Persico.

For those who were here to experience it, those memories remain indelible.