Watching the Popes Drive By

Pope John Paul II at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in 1979.
Pope John Paul II at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in 1979. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Manseau
Saturday, April 19, 2008

During the previous pope's first U.S. tour, when I was 5 years old, my mother wrapped my brother, sister and me in rain gear and took us to watch the papal entourage drive by in Boston. That was 1979, two years before an attempt on his life, so when John Paul II went by, it was not in the bulletproof Popemobile but in a black limousine with a sunroof, through which he stood for much of his tour of the city.

Because of the spitting drizzle that day (my mother warned us to keep our hoods on or we'd catch "pope colds"), the man called "God's athlete" for his punishing travel schedule rode hidden through some of Boston's streets, where crowds five deep filled the sidewalks.

I remember being disappointed to realize that the car was all I would see of him. I knew that my devout parents were children of the church, and I knew the man we were waiting to see was the father of it, so in the pope I had imagined finding some kind of surrogate grandfather. And then a car like a hearse rolled by.

No one else seemed to mind. The roar of the crowd was joy on the verge of madness, echoing in the valley of shingled triple-deckers that had been Boston's Irish Catholic ghetto when my mother was young.

The current pope likewise crowded streets and snarled traffic in Washington this week, but it was obvious that things have changed. Yes, Benedict XVI's public Mass filled the new baseball stadium to its 41,888-seat capacity. But, in 1979, John Paul II said Mass for 400,000 on the rain-soaked Boston Common. When he came to Washington a few days later, pilgrims camped out for two nights on the Mall to see him. For the current visit, "Welcome Pope Benedict" signs planned for some area buses were removed because commuters objected to religious messages appearing in a public space.

It would be easy to explain these somewhat different reactions to two very different popes as merely a matter of charisma. The former actor and poet John Paul II was adored the instant he became the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict XVI -- the church's prickly inquisitor before his ascension to the throne of St. Peter -- has proved a harder man to love.

It's also tempting to blame the clergy sexual abuse crisis for Benedict's relatively cool reception. The past decade has brought unprecedented questioning of the church's moral authority. Posters I saw pasted around Washington this week -- "Pope go home" -- would have been unimaginable in Boston 30 years ago.

Yet the changing relationship between Americans and the pope has a longer and deeper history.

For my parents' generation -- all those mothers bundling up their little ones to protect them from pope colds in 1979 -- the pope was indeed a bridge, as the title pontiff implies, but not just between humanity and God. For those children of immigrants who built the great urban enclaves that once defined American Catholicism, the pope was also a bridge between the old world and the new.

A generation ago, to be Irish or Italian or Polish or any other kind of "ethnic" Catholic in the United States was to grow up with pictures of the pope in your living room. To see the pope on American soil was to believe that it was possible to embrace the Catholic past, the Catholic present and maybe the Catholic future as well.

Today, this sense of the pope's meaning for Americans has faded. For a lapsed Catholic and a grandson of immigrants such as I am, interest in the pope endures, but it rests, in a sense, on a family connection rather than a personal link. No longer a spiritual father figure, the pope is for many more like a distant relation, one who grows ever more distant with each passing year.

And yet the fascination remains. This week, when I spotted a motorcade that was long even by Washington standards, I said to my young daughter, with excitement that surprised me, "Look! The pope!"

"What's the pope?" she asked.

Which made me wonder: Twenty or 30 years from now, when another pope visits for the first time, will my daughter notice? Will she care?

Peter Manseau is the author of "Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son." His e-mail address

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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