By JERRY FILTEAU, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
Pope John Paul II was very interested in the U.S. church and understood it well, former top officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in interviews with Catholic News Service.
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, who was president of the USCCB in 1992-95, when it was still known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled the summit of U.S. archbishops with Vatican officials in 1989, which he attended as secretary of the conference.
“I understood it as very positive,” he said. “He (the pope) understood us much better than other officials of the Holy See. … He had already seen what life in the United States was like.”
Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, conference president in 1989-92, recalled the pope’s 1987 meeting with the U.S. bishops in Los Angeles. It was a closed-door session that, including prayer and a meal, lasted five hours. The main feature was a structured dialogue in which Archbishop Pilarczyk and three other conference representatives spoke to the pope about major issues concerning the U.S. bishops. After each talk the pope, who had received advance copies of their texts, responded.
Archbishop Pilarczyk said that with no advance notice, he was asked to talk about the meeting to the hundreds of reporters covering the papal trip. They had received texts of the talks but had not been admitted to the meeting.
“The thing I remember about that is the media wanted me to say the pope really chewed us out,” he said. “Well, I don’t think the pope really did chew us out, and I wouldn’t say that. I felt always that the pope was respectful of us.”
At the 1989 summit with U.S. archbishops, he said, the pope attended most of the sessions and listened to the presentations and discussion. “I did not get the impression that we were there to be set straight by the pope. I believe the pope was a great believer in dialogue and discussion.”
In all his dealings with the pope, “he was always very respectful of the conference. … I never got the impression that he saw our conference as a runaway chariot that he had to get control of,” Archbishop Pilarczyk said. “Now some of the people who run Vatican dicasteries (departments) probably were more inclined to do that than the pope was, but I won’t mention any names.”
Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville, Ky., who was general secretary of the conference when Pope John Paul was elected, said: “The pope was very interested in the Catholic Church in the United States.”
Coming from a country where Catholicism was 1,000 years old, the pope was intrigued by “the newness, the great freedom that we had, the growth, in other words the great vitality in our church,” Archbishop Kelly said. “He also saw our great potential for leadership in the church and the world. By that I mean pastoral leadership, because we were so anxious to implement the (Second) Vatican Council so well and wisely—and he rejoiced in that and encouraged us always.”
“There was also a kind of caution, I think,” the archbishop continued, “that we not go too far, too fast, as Americans are often accused of doing and sometimes actually do. He wanted to watch us—not in a cautionary way so much as a fatherly way.”
Pope John Paul had made two tours of the United States when he was still archbishop of Krakow, Poland, in 1969 and 1976. Archbishop Kelly, who had spent time with him during the 1976 visit, said, “There he experienced the vitality of the Polish-American Catholic community and, I think, was very, very impressed by it, because of the freedom they had known in this country. So that gave him a good feeling about the United States as church.”
Shortly after the pope’s 1979 U.S. visit, Archbishop Kelly visited Rome with now-retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, then the conference president. He said he recalls “the enormous pleasure that the pope had taken in the visit and all that he seemed to have learned about us. He was really moved by his experience in coming here.”
Archbishop Kelly dealt extensively with the Vatican and the pope in the 1980s as part of a Vatican-appointed commission, headed by Archbishop Quinn, to study U.S. consecrated religious life.
Archbishop Kelly said the pope had consulted with the U.S. cardinals, who all agreed that such a study would be useful. He said the commission framed the study in the context of broader issues in U.S. Catholic life in general and the pope picked up on that.
“The situation of religious life in the United States sort of became a laboratory test for the whole situation of the church here, and he (the pope) was willing and able to contextualize the difficulties of the situation of religious into the story of the church’s vitality that he had already experienced,” the archbishop said.
“It was a good and interesting time. It was a great challenge also to explain all this to the Holy Father and he was deeply interested. And he had very profound and searching questions about it. But always he came to it as a father full of love for our church. … For the rest of the pope’s life he honored Archbishop Quinn for the association that they developed then,” he said.
Cardinal Keeler said during preparations for the pope to visit Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, the Vatican advance team had rejected the cardinal’s request to include an ecumenical and interreligious dimension in the agenda, saying youth day was a Catholic event. He got backing from the U.S. committee to seek a change, he said, and when he presented it to the pope “the Holy Father instantly approved it.”
So they invited representatives of the churches and Jewish and Muslim organizations with whom the bishops were in dialogue, he said. They met in a Denver hotel while the pope was at another event, Cardinal Keeler said, and he took notes of their discussion and, sitting next to the pope at supper that night, read his notes to the pope.
At the subsequent youth vigil attended by the representatives of the other faiths, the pope asked to meet them, so even though it was not on the schedule they were brought up one by one and introduced to the pope, he said.
“That was a story that was not much reported at the time. … People could see it happening, but they didn’t know what was happening,” he said.