This October 1-7 marks the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s papal tour of the United States. The occasions was historic – since no pope before him had undertaken such a trip. John Paul took the United States by storm. I had barely been a reporter when I saw the chance of a lifetime and set out to cover the papal visit -- by hook or by crook. Being inexperienced helped. I didn’t know that I was setting out to do what would seem impossible to an experienced journalist.
Step one involved getting on board the plane that travelled with the pope around the country. I offered my services to the Religious News Service, then a branch of the Association of Christians and Jews. I convinced my editor at The Evangelist newspaper in Albany, New York, to pay for it. I filed for both the home town paper that took pride in having the only diocesan reporter in the country on the plane, and for RNS, a poverty stricken wire service that liked having a rep on the plane even if they had no money. I got a coveted seat on Shepherd 2.
Just like that, I became a wire service. With the pluck of a desperate novice I demanded equal treatment to the bishops’ well-staffed, well-funded National Catholic News Service (for which I later went to work), now known as Catholic News Service. Just being on the plane, however, did not get me into events. For that you needed media tickets. They were scarce. At first I wasn’t getting any but I guess the story can be told now. Someone at the bishops’ conference took pity on me and accepted my argument “I am a wire service.” We made an arrangement: Early each morning and wearing a raincoat, I would stand reading a newspaper in the media hotel lobby. A hand would slip into my pocket. I would continue reading and a few minutes later I would reach in and find the tickets I needed for the day.
Events in each city had their own character. Boston was welcoming – even with a downpour, but no rain could dampen spirits at the Mass on the Boston Common.
Diocesan newspaper reporters multitask. So I was photographer as well as reporter. I remember reporting that it was a day to own Kodak stock. As a “photographer” I got to stand on a platform with a bird’s eye view of this historic event. Boston police were charming. We’d been warned not to move out of media areas and threatened with loss of credentials if we did. I wandered a bit and thought it was all over when a policeman reached out his hand to me. Then I realized he was also stepping on a rope to help me navigate over it.
The next day was New York City, and the pope’s visit to the United Nations and then to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t believe I was actually walking on the field in this baseball shrine. Catholics from all over the state were on hand. Toward the end of Mass, to get a little color for my stories I wandered out of the media area and soon saw one of New York’s finest coming toward me.
“Officer, I’m lost,” I said. “Could you show me the way out?” “Happy to,” he said, and escorted me on a kind of perp walk past of the stands of the Albany Diocesan pilgrims, where a few who recognized what was going on laughed.
Philadelphia was next on the itinerary, and the mayor welcomed the pope but not the media who accompanied him. When Mayor Frank Rizzo knelt to kiss the pope’s ring at the airport media said it was good to see him on his knees. There was no love lost between the mayor and the media. His revenge this time? He admitted media to events only after what seemed like half of Philadelphia had been led to their seats.
This trip was a first for everyone. Secret Service established a timetable, called a bible, and said we would follow it no matter what. The only problem was that the pope wasn’t reading this bible. For a brief stop in a ravaged part of the Bronx, media were told not to get off the buses. Reporters complained: “There’s no air in here. We can’t breathe. Open the doors.” The bus driver did and we escaped, like caged animals in quest of freedom, or in this case, a story.
My first lead, shortly after covering the pope up close, was “He’s pope and he knows it.” For the power of his personality shone forth from the moment he kissed the ground upon arrival at Logan Airport to his departure from Andrews Air Force Base seven days later.
Several moments still stand out in my memory.
The meeting with youth at Madison Square Garden is one. The rapport between the pope and the youth stunned everyone. People hadn’t seen anything like it since the days of the charismatic President John F. Kennedy two decades before. John Paul liked the young people who came from the area’s 200 public and parochial schools and they knew it. The Polish pontiff started a kind of banter that overcame any language barrier. The youth began to chant and the pope chanted with them. It was a wonderful welcome to the Big Apple.
The unpredictability of the pope kept media on their toes. In Chicago, the second stop after Philadelphia, the pope was supposedly settled in for the night. But instinct told me to go to the residence of Cardinal Cody, where the pope was staying. Sure enough, the pope appeared at the window to kibitz with the teens and collegians who were crowding around -- and to tell them to go to bed. He’d been in three cities that day -- Philadelphia, Des Moines and Chicago.
The pope went to Des Moines to be with the heartland of America. Other cities had hosted Mass in elaborate stadia or public squares. This time Mass was in a field on a complex of three working farms with barns and silos as backdrop. It was a wonderfully unique moment, even for this city girl.
By the end of the trip, in Washington, DC, media were tired. Saturday night in the lobby of the media hotel, some photographers, ever irreverent, called out, “Hey, is there any point of our going to cover the meeting with the nuns at the Shrine tomorrow?”
“Ah, you can never tell with nuns,” I commented. “It’s worth going, just in case.”
For those who don’t recall that meeting, it was when Sister Theresa Kane asked the pope to open all ministries to women, a way of asking for women’s ordination. It became the story of the trip.
An aside: Sister Theresa and I are both Sisters of Mercy, both of us wore blue suits with the Mercy cross on the left lapel. Both of us have round faces and gray hair, mine prematurely so. After her encounter, people kept asking me about “my speech.” It was a challenge to get away just to write a news story on an event which stunned me as much as everyone else in the press corps.
The trip was a blessed experience. I was privileged to see history up close, never imagining that after that I would myself become a member of the Vatican press corps in Rome, moving from Shepherd 2 to the actual plane on which John Paul himself flew. After I left the press corps my work had me organizing some other papal visits.
These trips are grueling for media, who quickly get out of sorts. In 1993, in Denver, loud reporters were demanding tickets from me faster than I could distribute them. One observer praised my patience with a particularly energetic journalist. “It wasn’t a problem,” I said, “I once was a screamer.”
Covering that first trip in 1979, with hundreds of thousands of people turning out was a journalistic high and remains so. Yet it did not even compare with the privilege I had working with media 25 years later in Rome, when the pope died. The millions who turned out to pay their respects especially the young, testified to the fact that they knew John Paul was the Vicar of Christ on earth. He had a special affinity for the young and they knew that too. And they showed up to say goodbye. This time I was not covering the story but helping others cover it. I found myself thanking God -- and John Paul II --for the privilege they had given me.