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1979 Papal Visit

View a video of the 1979 Papal Visit.

Read the text of Pope John Paul II’s 1979 speech at Catholic University.

Note:  Following the death of Pope John Paul II, CUA hosted several events in his honor and published the following article in the Summer 2005 edition of CUA Magazine.

To read more about the 1979 visit by Pope John Paul II, please see the Inside CUA article from the February 2008 issue.

CUA and Pope John Paul II
Bound by Faith and Scholarship

Pope John Paul II during his 1979 visit to The Catholic University of AmericaThough she says she’s not a woman who often allows herself to cry, CUA alumna Jeni Stepanek was overcome with grief when Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2.
“I cried for a long, long time,” says Stepanek, who like millions of people around the world, followed the news of the pope’s final days.

Stepanek felt a special bond with the pope. She had shaken the pontiff’s hand when he visited Catholic University in 1979. She was a sophomore then — an honors student who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1982.

By March 2001, Stepanek had lost three children to muscular dystrophy and her fourth child, Mattie, lay in a coma at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., suffering from the same disease. The pope sent a special blessing to Mattie, who lived for another three years, finally dying on June 22, 2004. The death of John Paul — less than a year after Mattie’s death — hit Stepanek hard.

As leader of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II had a unique relationship with CUA, the Church’s national university, and with many of its students.

Stepanek and many other CUA students had held an overnight prayer vigil that preceded John Paul’s 1979 visit to campus to give a major address on Catholic higher education. When the pontiff arrived at CUA, he and the students clicked immediately.

A throng of young people in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception chanted, “We love you! We love you!” and he responded almost playfully, “Perhaps, I love you more.”

With the news of John Paul’s death, Catholic University went into mourning and hosted several events in his honor, including an evening prayer vigil and a memorial Mass celebrated by Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., university president, at the Basilica. Before and after the pope’s death, scores of national and local media outlets sought out many CUA administrators and faculty members, who provided commentary for radio, television and newspaper coverage of the pontiff.

But the relationship between the late pope and Catholic University started even before Karol Wojtyla, cardinal of Krakow, was elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978.

A Scholar Visits CUA
John Paul’s first visit to CUA was in 1976. A well-respected philosopher, the cardinal of Krakow came to CUA at the invitation of Jude Dougherty, then dean of CUA’s School of Philosophy.
Dougherty had invited the cardinal to speak under the auspices of the philosophy school to an audience mainly made up of Washington Philosophy Club members. After the dean picked up Cardinal Wojtyla at the airport, the two men embarked on three busy days on campus and around the city of Washington.

Dougherty had reserved a Curley Hall room for his guest, who he thought might like to rest occasionally during his first visit to Washington. “But I was the one who needed to rest,” remembers Dougherty. “He was a dynamo.”

Cardinal Wojtyla presented a lecture in Caldwell Hall on the use and abuse of freedom. The presentation became the basis for the pope’s 1979 book, The Acting Person.
“His talk was a highly technical, very professional lecture,” says Dougherty.

By the time Cardinal Wojtyla left Washington, Dougherty says he knew he had been in the presence of “a great man.” Three years later when John Paul visited CUA, he proved that he was also a good friend. 

During the pope’s address on Catholic education, Dougherty was seated behind several rows of dignitaries on a stage set up in the old CUA gym, now the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies. As the pope was leaving the gym amidst a capacity crowd, he stopped and asked whether his friend was in the building. Dougherty was summoned to Pope John Paul’s side. The two men embraced and talked briefly.

“It was an emotional moment for both of us,” remembers Dougherty.

After that, they got together several times when Dougherty was in Rome, where he attended the pope’s private Mass and shared meals with him at the Vatican and at the papal villa Castel Gandolfo.

During the pope’s final days, Dougherty, dean emeritus, was one of the CUA faculty members who provided commentary about John Paul’s papacy for the media.
“He taught us how to live, and he showed us how to die,” muses Dougherty of his friend, Holy Father and fellow philosopher.

Playing for the Pope
Elaine Walter, former dean and still a professor in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, is one of the many members of the CUA community the pope has hosted in Rome. Walter organized three trips to the Vatican for music students and faculty, the first in 1987 when the CUA Board of Trustees celebrated the university’s 100th anniversary with a retreat in the Eternal City.

She had to make sure that 100 students — 40 in the CUA Symphony Orchestra and 60 in the chorus — arrived safely in Rome with their passports, music and instruments, ready to perform for the pontiff.

Preparing for the trip was hectic, says Walter, but performing for Pope John Paul II was an “unparalleled experience for our students.”

The CUA singers and musicians always performed the Polish hymn “Serdeczna Matko” for the pope, who played a critical role in bringing about the collapse of Soviet control over his native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Although the pope aged noticeably between the music school’s first trip in 1987 and its last in 1999, his appreciation of the students’ performance never waned, Walter says.

“The pope would sit with his face resting on one hand, his eyes closed through the performance,” she says. “He wouldn’t move until we were done and then he’d break into a huge smile.”

Ties to Papacy Live On
Though Pope John Paul II is gone, CUA will continue to have strong ties to the papacy and to John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, whom several members of the CUA community met when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Monsignor Brian Ferme, dean of CUA’s School of Canon Law, has known the new pontiff since the early 1990s when Cardinal Ratzinger was serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At that time, Monsignor Ferme began serving informally as a consultant to that congregation, which promotes and safeguards doctrine concerning faith and morals throughout the Catholic world. In 2000 Pope John Paul II formally appointed Monsignor Ferme a consultor to the congregation.

CUA’s president has met several times with the cardinal, including a Vatican meeting in 1999 when Father O’Connell was in Rome with the CUA trustees.

Last October Father O’Connell received a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, who asked that the university organize a symposium “to identify currents and points of agreement [among different religions] which may be productive in renewing an understanding of the natural moral law.” The symposium is now being planned at CUA.

The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI renewed CUA’s awareness of its ties to the papacy as a pontifical university with a specific mission to “be of service to Christian thought and education in the Catholic community,” says Father O’Connell.

“Given the unique role played in the United States by our ecclesiastical faculties of theology, philosophy and canon law,” he says, “I expect CUA to continue to be a significant source of Catholic scholarly activity in these disciplines and a readily available resource for the Church in this country and throughout the world.”

Last Revised 27-Mar-08 02:00 PM.