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THE PAPAL VISIT : Pope Faces a Less Tranquil U.S. Visit

September 10, 1987|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Religion Writer

On his visit to six U.S. cities in 1979, Pope John Paul II traveled in open limousines, saw densely urban, East Coast strongholds of the Catholic Church, and was greeted with almost unrestrained enthusiasm at every stop.

During his nine-city tour that begins in Miami today, the pontiff will ride in armored Popemobiles and swing through the Deep South, the heavily Latino Southwest and the free-spirited West.

The Popemobile became an essential part of the pontiff's public appearances after a 1981 attempt on his life.

And this time the Pope faces growing controversy over Vatican policy and an increasingly restive flock of U.S bishops. Protest demonstrations are planned in every city by groups ranging from atheists, gays and feminists to Bible-thumping fundamentalists and militant Jews.

Disagreement was muted in 1979. His appeal as a warm human being had preceded him, stilling most doubts.

The only explicit confrontation came in the cavernous National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on the last day of his visit. Sister Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, became the first Catholic in modern history to publicly challenge a Pope face to face when she asked him to consider allowing women priests.

In 1979, U.S. church leaders had only 11 weeks to prepare for John Paul's six-day trip to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Des Moines and Washington; this time, visit coordinators have had two years to plan for his 10-day visit to Miami; Columbia, S.C.; New Orleans; San Antonio; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Monterey; San Francisco, and Detroit.

But the scope and pace of his activities will be no less dizzying, with a marathon agenda scheduled at every stop.

Unflagging Stamina

A man of great stamina, this most-traveled of popes seldom seemed to tire on his U.S. visit eight years ago. One brief exception, a papal aide disclosed, was during a 12-hour sweep through Philadelphia, Des Moines and Chicago when John Paul nodded off during a noisy helicopter ride over Iowa's cornfields.

John Paul, now 67, was new on the job, and the church was united by the power of the personality of the first Polish Pope. He had been pontiff for only one year. And his style seemed to signal a new openness at the Vatican.

For at least those six days in 1979, the attention of a generally secular nation was riveted on a major religious leader and the values and beliefs he represented.

During his one day in Chicago, John Paul displayed his considerable magnetism and versatility. He showed his folksiness to the Polish community, his churchmanship and unblinking self-confidence to the assembled American bishops, and his affinity for lyric poetry to the huge crowd at Grant Park.

Even the media seemed to be awe-struck with a media-savvy, former-actor-turned-Pope. For the first time in its 128-year history, the New York Times ran a photograph across all six columns of Page 1 welcoming John Paul. CBS news pulled Eric Sevareid back from retirement to cover the papal visit.

Several hours before returning to Rome, the Pope rode in a rapidly accelerating motorcade down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. Mary Stewart Walker, a teacher from Bethesda, Md., had waited patiently for hours along the capital parade route. She reached out.

For an instant, her hand and the Pope's touched. But then she stumbled forward as a policeman on a motorcycle struck her.

"I'm all right. I got to see and touch the Pope!" the disheveled but delighted woman exclaimed afterward.

Whether John Paul can work the same papal magic on his return engagement remains to be seen.

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