By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
n Pope John Paul II’s seven visits to the United States, he continually urged Catholics to use their freedom responsibly and to preserve the sacredness and value of human life.
In football stadiums in New York and California, a Hispanic barrio in Texas, a historic farm in Iowa and dozens of cathedrals, the pope challenged Americans to rediscover their country’s religious roots, which sought to guarantee individual freedom and human dignity.
He frequently quoted long-standing icons of American culture, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, words of Thomas Jefferson, the Pledge of Allegiance, and even the song “America the Beautiful.”
In 1979, he visited the Statue of Liberty and in 1995, he reminded his listeners at Giants Stadium in New Jersey not to forget the words emblazoned on the base of the statue, symbolizing the nation’s initial willingness to care for the poor and immigrant.
“Is present day America becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy?” he asked.
And with a challenging response to his own question, he replied, “It must not.”
In 1987, the pope told Americans at a departure ceremony at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport: “The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.”
The pope first came to the United States in 1979, visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and Des Moines, Iowa.
He met with church and civic leaders, including President Jimmy Carter at the White House, but he also took the time to personally greet many of the thousands who flocked to the sidelines, hoping for a handshake or even just a glimpse of him. In Chicago he found time to make a phone call to a retired bishop dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But the pope’s first U.S. visit also was not without tension. During the last day of his trip he met with about 7,000 women religious in Washington and was challenged by one of them to expand women’s role in the church.
“I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and to respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the church as fully participating members,” said Mercy Sister Theresa Kane, then-head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Although the pope had stopovers in Alaska in 1981 and 1984, his next major visit to the United States was in 1987, when he visited Miami; Columbia, S.C.; New Orleans; San Antonio; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Monterey and Carmel, Calif.; San Francisco; and Detroit.
In South Carolina, he praised the American tradition of freedom, but called on Americans not to lose sight of freedom’s “true meaning.”
“America: You cannot insist on the right to choose without also insisting on the duty to choose well, the duty to choose in truth,” he said at an ecumenical service.
He not only spoke to huge crowds, but addressed smaller groups of religious leaders, black Catholics, Native Americans, Catholic educators and Catholic health care workers. He also met with President Ronald Reagan.
In Los Angeles, he met privately with most of the U.S. bishops and noted that many Catholics “are selective in their adherence to” church moral teachings. He said it was wrong to think that dissent poses no obstacle to Catholic participation in the sacraments.
In San Francisco, the pope ignored the conventional wisdom of the day to reach out and touch AIDS patients, shaking their hands and embracing a 4-year-old boy who had contracted the deadly disease through a blood transfusion shortly after birth.
In Los Angeles, after the pope heard armless musician Tony Melendez play the guitar with his toes, he jumped off the stage, strode over to him and kissed him on his cheek.
Six years later, Melendez performed at World Youth Day in Denver, where the pope spoke to hundreds of thousands of young people at the edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Many of the youth not only walked 15 miles in the summer’s heat to the site of the final Mass of the pope’s 1993 visit, but also camped out overnight for the service, where they were encouraged by the pope to bring Christ to the world.
“At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of life has been put into your hands,” he told the youth.
During his three-day stay in Denver, the pope also met with President Bill Clinton.
In 1995, in a visit just to the East Coast, the pope stopped in New York City; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Baltimore and Newark, N.J. He celebrated Mass in New York’s Central Park and various sports stadiums, including a racetrack in Queens.
In a formal talk to the U.N. General Assembly and in off-the-cuff remarks to schoolchildren, the pope urged people to work and pray for peace.
He also took an unexpected detour down Fifth Avenue to greet the throngs of people eager to see the pontiff up close.
In a prayer service in Newark the pope thanked God for the “extraordinary human epic that is the United States.” And before leaving, he again urged Catholics to “love life, cherish life, defend life, from conception to natural death.”
The pope returned to the United States in 1999 for a pastoral visit to St. Louis.
In his 31-hour stay in the country’s heartland, the pope met Mark McGwire, home run champion for the St. Louis Cardinals, prior to leading a prayer service for youth in the city’s hockey arena. The next day he celebrated Mass at an enclosed football stadium for 120,000 people in what has been described as the largest indoor Mass in the country.
He challenged young people not to delay living out their faith.
“You are ready for what Christ wants of you now. He wants you—all of you—to be light to the world,” he told the exuberant crowd.
He also strongly urged American Catholics to be “unconditionally pro-life” in taking stands against abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, capital punishment and racism.
More than once he cited the “Spirit of St. Louis”—the name of the plane in which Charles Lindbergh made history with the first solo trans-Atlantic flight—in appeals for a new spirit of service, compassion and generosity.
In usual fashion, he also urged St. Louis Catholics to take up a renewed spirit of their “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Contributing to this story was Mark Pattison.