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July, 2019

Upcoming Papal Visit Stirs Memories of 1979

By Catherine Lee

Pope John Paul II speaking to CUA students outside the National Shrine.
Catholic University truck driver and mechanic Joshua Baker describes the weeks prior to Pope John Paul II's visit to CUA in 1979 as “crunch time.” He and other workers waxed floors, painted rooms, raked leaves and collected trash to ready the campus for the historic event.
Vice President for University Relations Frank Persico, who was serving as executive assistant to Provost C. Joseph Neusse at the time, recalls that for the big day — Oct. 7, 1979 — he bought a new dark green suit, which he wore while serving as an usher in the old gym, the site of Pope John Paul II's speech.

Robert Ricks, professor emeritus of music, expanded a simple vocal line and piano score for one of the pope’s favorite Polish hymns to the Virgin Mary into two full scores: one for a four-part chorus of 200 and another for an orchestra of about 100.
For several longtime members of the Catholic University community, preparations for Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming April 17 visit to campus — part of his first U.S. trip as pontiff — have stirred memories of the Polish pope's address at CUA 28 years ago.

At that time, Pope John Paul II delivered a major speech on Catholic higher education to a crowd of 2,000 that included 240 heads of Catholic institutions of higher learning from around the country. His visit came at the end of a trip that concluded with a Mass on the Mall in downtown Washington for a crowd of about a million people.

Pope Benedict XVI also will give an address on Catholic education. He will speak at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center to an audience of more than 600 that will include presidents of Catholic colleges and universities as well as diocesan heads of education. Prior to his talk, he will say Mass at Nationals Park, the city’s brand-new baseball stadium.

The visits of these two popes to Catholic University reflect the special relationship between the Vatican and the university. Chartered by Pope Leo XIII in 1887 and founded by the Church's U.S. bishops, CUA is unique as the national university of the Catholic Church in America.

Pope Benedict XVI

The times were different during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979. The U.S. Secret Service was involved in the visit, but in those pre-9/11 days security wasn’t the issue that it is today. Papal security also tightened considerably following the 1981 assassination attempt on the pontiff in St. Peter’s Square.

The two popes are also quite different. Just 57 at the time of his visit to CUA, Pope John Paul was a much younger pontiff than Pope Benedict, who will turn 81 during his visit to Washington in April. An actor in his youth, Karol Wojtyla was an outgoing man who warmed easily to a crowd. The scholarly Joseph Ratzinger is more reserved.

No matter the differences between the times and the popes, the excitement prior to a papal visit is the same. And in the fall of 1979, the campus was electrified, according to those who were present then. 

Seven Weeks’ Notice 
Professor of Music Elaine Walter, then assistant dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, says that she and her late husband, Vincent Walter, were at the beach in mid-August 1979 when he got a call notifying him of the upcoming papal visit. Walter, then chief of staff for CUA President Edmund D. Pellegrino, quickly returned to Washington and moved into a motel on Michigan Avenue to be near campus round-the-clock for meetings. Catholic University started preparing with just seven weeks' advance notice of the visit.

The university called upon the services of a special-events decorating company, with L. Earl Beckwith acting as the firm’s project coordinator. It was his job to transform the cavernous gym into a site suitable for hosting a major address by the Holy Father. Beckwith recounts that his crew attached pipes to the gym ceiling and hung yards and yards of drapery from them to create “nice curved lines that softened the look of the big space.”

He and his crew built a wooden stage out of theatrical risers, created CUA seals and banners to decorate the walls, and put together flower arrangements. The floor of the gym was covered with red carpeting.

Frank Persico serving as an usher in 1979.
Now president of his own event-planning company in Rockville, Md., Beckwith has continued to manage other major events for Catholic University since then, working closely with Persico. This year, they’re working together again, on both the papal visit in April and CUA’s 19th annual American Cardinals Dinner, which will be held just eight days later in Boston.

“I’m very honored to be working on the second papal visit to Catholic University,” says Persico. “As we prepare for Pope Benedict’s visit in April, we should be mindful that this is an opportunity for us to launch Catholic University onto the international stage. I’m really hopeful that this is going to put an exclamation point at the end of CUA.”

Pope John Paul II and CUA Students Bond
On the day of the visit, the pontiff’s first stop was the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Catholic University students lined the steps and cheered the pontiff. CUA General Counsel Craig Parker remembers standing with his wife on the south side of Michigan Avenue, holding up their 8-month-old son and watching as the pope came out of the shrine.

A little later, students standing outside the gym chanted, “We love you, John Paul II! We love you!” The pope, standing near the gym door at the top of stairs also lined with red carpeting, responded: “John Paul II, he loves you! John Paul II, he loves you!”

Inside the gym, the pope told the audience, “I cannot but feel at home with you.” He called CUA a “great institution” and affirmed the responsibility of a Catholic university to set up “a real community which bears witness to a living and operative Christianity, a community where sincere commitment to scientific research and study goes together with a deep commitment to authentic Christian living.”

Elaine Walter was in charge of the musical performance for the pope. She says she and the chorus and orchestra members started checking into the old gym around 7 a.m. that day, a couple of hours before the pope’s address. Dogs brought to campus by the Secret Service sniffed the instrumentalists' cases before they could enter the building.

Former CUA President Edmund D. Pellegrino, in white, with the Holy Father.
The chorus and orchestra performed several times during the program. Among their selections was “Serdeczna Matko,” the hymn that Professor Ricks had prepared for performance by the chorus and orchestra. The song had become a kind of Polish anthem prior to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

The musicians performed the hymn as the pope was leaving the gym, Walter recalls. Halfway down the aisle when he heard the familiar song, John Paul stopped and smiled at the chorus members standing above him on risers. It was a personal moment in a special journey for the Holy Father, whose next stop was the National Mall, where a million of the faithful awaited him. 



For updates on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to CUA on April 17, 2008, visit

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Last Revised 23-Jan-08 10:08 AM.