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The D.C. Visit: A Whirlwind of Serenity

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page D07

Susan Gibbs still has the yellow armband she and other Catholic schoolchildren were instructed to wear on that windy day 26 years ago, when they volunteered to help at Pope John Paul II's historic celebration of Mass on the Mall.

Her most vivid memory, she says, is of the moments just after the service, when the limousine ferrying the Holy Father drove away from the makeshift altar near the Smithsonian Castle and passed within a few feet of where she stood.

Pope John Paul II walks with President Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979. (AP)

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"I just remember my arm being pulled up, involuntarily, towards him," said Gibbs, 40, now director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington. "It was one of those moments when you knew you were Catholic. And that is the person I've become."

Pope John Paul II was the only pontiff to visit Washington. He came to the city in October 1979 for a 33-hour tour that included an afternoon at the White House with President Jimmy Carter, Mass for 1,500 priests at St. Matthew's Cathedral and the public Mass on the Mall.

The pope, who also visited Washington as a cardinal in 1976, returned to the region in 1995 for a 10-hour swing through Baltimore. He celebrated Mass at Camden Yards, led a parade from his perch in the Mercedes-Benz "Popemobile" and had lunch in a soup kitchen with more than a dozen of the city's least and lost. Many who witnessed or participated in the visits say they were struck by the aura that seemed to emanate from the pope. They say they remember not the details or specifics of what he said in his homilies but his kind expression and how he paid close attention when he met them, asking about their families and home parishes.

"What struck me was his gentleness," said Monsignor Ronald Jameson, now rector at St. Matthew's but in 1979 a 37-year-old priest at the cathedral who was chosen to coordinate the pope's liturgies.

Jameson said there were a few tense moments leading up to the Masses that John Paul performed -- such as when organizers realized the stiff wind on the Mall might blow the Communion wafers from the plate. But he remembered the pope as "very gentle, very understanding, always that calming influence. . . . There was just something about him that just brought that serenity with him."

The pope drew smaller crowds in Washington than he had in cities he visited earlier in his one-week U.S. trip, the heavily Catholic areas of Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.

The Mass on the Mall, originally expected to draw as many as 1 million of the faithful, was attended by about 175,000 people, according to National Park Service estimates at the time. Hundreds who were there left early, apparently put off by the stern admonitions against abortion and birth control that the pope focused on in the homily, his last major address of the U.S. trip.

But most of his flock stayed and cheered their white-haired leader, whose green vestments stood in bright contrast to the white platform where he stood.

The vast majority of the worshipers participated in Holy Communion, the ritual consumption of bread and wine that Catholics believe are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, by receiving wafers that were passed from person to person in the large crowd. But about 110 Catholic laypeople and clergy were chosen by the archdiocese to receive Communion directly from John Paul.

Among them was Catharine Heine, then a middle-aged mother of six, now a 77-year-old resident of Leisure World who still goes to Mass most days at the retirement community's parish church, Our Lady of Grace.

"It was just the best feeling to think that I was receiving the body and blood of Jesus from his representative here on Earth," Heine said. "It was just a glorious kind of feeling."

Hiram Haywood of Southeast Washington led the procession that opened that Mass, carrying the processional cross. He is now 84 and debilitated by a stroke, but he has never forgotten that day.

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