LOCAL LORE: Past Papal (and pre-Papal) Visits


Anticipation for the visit of Pope Francis in September is growing. Right now it looks as if his stop at The Catholic University of America will include a Mass for Father Junípero Serra on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Here is his official schedule.

Of course, Francis isn’t the first pope to visit here. Thanks to the proximity of CUA, the national university of the Catholic Church, chartered by Pope Leo XIII, many Catholic luminaries have come to our neck of the woods over the years. The first Pope to visit was John Paul II in 1979. But three years earlier, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, he had visited CUA at the invitation of Jude Dougherty, dean of the School of Philosophy. Here he is with an unidentified priest on the steps of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1976. 

But he wasn’t the first soon-to-be-Pope to visit. Forty years earlier, in 1936, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State and Camerlengo, came for a visit. Here he is touring the campus, with McMahon Hall in the background. 

Pacelli would be elected Pope Pius XII three years later, and led the Church through World War II, a period still clouded in controversy. He did not return to Catholic University as Pope, as did John Paul II in 1979. Then, many students stayed up all night on the university mall, holding a prayer vigil until the Pope arrived. When he did, they chanted “John Paul Two, we love you!” “I love you, I love you!” he chanted back, then went to shake hands and greet students on the steps of the Shrine. 

During that visit the Pope spoke in the university gymnsium, now the Crough Center, delivering an address on Catholic education. “A Catholic college or university must set up among its faculty and students a real community which bears witness to a living and operative Christianity,” he said. “A community where sincere commitment to scientific research and study goes together with a deep commitment to authentic Christian life.”

When Pope Benedict XVI came to visit in April of 2008, the atmosphere was a bit different. As conservative as Pope John Paul II, perhaps more so, Benedict did not have the natural warmth and outgoing personality of his predecessor and had to work harder to connect with young Americans. His address on Catholic education, with an emphasis on the limits of academic freedom, was well-received by conservative educators, less so by their liberal counterparts. Nonetheless, thousands of students waited to greet him and welcomed him warmly when he spoke at the Pryzbyla Center on campus.


Unlike the two previous papal visits, Pope Francis will not speak about Catholic education here, but his Mass at the National Shrine is expected to draw a sizeable crowd. Tickets for the mass will be made available to local Catholics through their parishes, though the exact system for ticket distribution has not yet been set. The Archdiocese of Washington has a website that will contain updated information as the visit gets closer. Catholic University has also set up a slick new website that contains lots of interesting information and pictures. 

All photos in this post are courtesy of the Archives of The Catholic University of America.

© Robert Malesky 2017