The Pope from Rome met the president from the United States yesterday in a brief ceremony both splendid and simple that marked the end of two centuries of history. Until that moment, Catholic pontiffs never had been received officially by American chief executives.
It was a perfect fall afternoon, with warm sunshine and brilliant skies, that greeted John Paul II as his limousine slowly moved up the circular White House driveway and stopped in front of the steps where Jimmy Carter stood, smiling. Before them on the White House lawn were the assembled leaders of the U.S. government, but it was another sight that testified even more to the unusual nature of this meeting and this day.
The ushers and stewards, who are accustomed to seeing kings and queens, prime ministers and potentates come and go, filled the upstairs White House windows and recorded the scene below with their cameras. They knew that a day when a president greets a pope was something special.
John Paul II and Jimmy Carter each carefully noted the significance of that moment when they stood side by side at a podium looking out over the crowd of 1,400 invited guests.
"It gives me great joy to be the first pope in history to come to the capital of this nation," the pope said in the heavy Polish accent now familiar to millions of Americans who have turned out to greet him on his national tour this week, "and I thank God for this blessing."
The president hailed the pope as a pilgrim of peace who has won the hearts of Americans, and also spoke of the "solemn joy" of their meeting. "This historic day," he said, "calls forth such a feeling as we mark another milestone in the long intertwined history of our country and its faith in God."
Both evoked history in other ways.
When he landed at Andrews Air Force Base late in the morning after a flight from Chicago, John Paul II said he was looking forward to meeting the leaders of "this young and flourishing country.,
It was a reminder that, while the United States is the world's oldest democracy, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church speaks with the authority and tradition of 20 centuries of experience. And while Jimmy Carter is the nation's 39th president, John Paul is the 264th man to occupy the throne of St. Peter in Rome.
For his part, the president lightly touched on the historic traditions that have kept the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics and the temporal head of the American government officially apart.
"We cherish our independence of religious thought and tradition of separation of church and state," he said. "but we are all grateful that we can stand together upon the common ground of shared beliefs."
The meeting of these two men symbolically joined together two distinct groups -- the world's largest organized religious body, representing some 700 million people, as well as earth's smallest city-state, the Vatican; and the world's most pluralistic secular society, the United States, which is also the most powerful economic and military force on the globe.
And it officially introduced to U.S. leaders a pope who has stirred American emotions and attracted national attention as feu public figures have in years during the visit he now completes in Washington. Recognition of John Paul's impact was explicit in both the words greeting him formally to Washington by Vice President Mondale and later President Carter at the White House.
"Your Holiness, Mondale said, at the airport arrival, during this past week, as you traveled across what you call 'this continent of hope,' as you spoke of the good things we love and of the challenges that await us, you truly touched our nation's soul. Only a special man could do this."
At the White House, Carter said:
"You have moved among us as a champion of dignity and decency for every human being, and as a pilgrim of peace among nations. You have offered your love. We as individuals are heartened by it. You can be sure, Pope John Paul, that the people of America return your love."
The pope restated what has been an essential message in the series of homilies he has given while traveling during his tiring but exhilarating American journey to the major cities of the East Coast and to the farms and largest city of the Midwest -- a message of humanity.
"It is in this dignity of the human person that I see the meaning of history," he said, "and that I find the principle that gives sense to the role which every human being has to assume for his or her own advancement and for the well-being of the society to which he or she belongs."
Behind the solemn words uttered then and later by the pope and the president about the dangers of the nuclear arms race and the "blind materialism" of contemporary society lay another story yesterday. It was the way, simple but moving, in which Washington welcomed the pope.
There were no sounds of booming cannon that always greet a head of state to the White House, and little of the formal ceremonies that accompany such occasions.
The crowd gathered under the stately old elm trees and out on the open expanse of lawn was patient and good-natured as the time for the pope's arrival passed.
A military honor guard marched up the driveway with quiet precision and took their places, bayonets unsheathed and gleaming in the sun, along the North Portico entrance. A Marine Corps band contingent, carrying trumpets and moving in time to the subdued click-click-click beat of a drummer striking his ticks together, took up positions near the front doors. It was 17 minutes before 2 o'clock when their fanfare of salute signaled the pope's arrival.
He came into sight, standing up in his limousine, head turned toward the crowd and facing into the sunshine.
After the president greeted him, the two men took their places at the podium as an announcer called out over a loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United Sates and His Holiness, John Paul II. It was now 2:07 p.m., and the president began to speak.
Within 20 minutes the entire welcoming ceremony was over, and the pope and president were entering the White House followed by a stream of guests. It was all simple and direct and without the heavy hand of undue protocol.
After the two men conferred privately for about an hour in the president's Oval Office, they emerged again before a larger throng of some 6,000 people who were waiting on the South Lawn.
Before, their remarks had been general in nature; but now, after their meeting, they delivered more specific comments aimed at world problems they commonly could address.
The president said they had discussed the future in their meeting, and that they "share a belief that the church must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system." But he went on, they also had spoken about "opportunities we might pursue together."
Then he said:
"We will work to renew the spiritual strength that can bear us beyond the blind materialism to true caring for one another -- in our families, in our communities, in our nations, and in our world. And we will pursue this goal through action, not just words.
"I join His Holiness in urging all individuals and nations of the world to alleviate the number of people and the homelessness of refugees -- not as political acts, but as acts of humanitarian concern. We cannot profess to love humanity and watch hundreds of thousands of men, women and children die in a human tragedy we can prevent with prompt and generous action."
He reiterated his oft-expressed appeal for human rights worldwide and called for the nations of the world "to wrest the fateful lightning of nuclear destruction from the hands of man. We must successfully conclude our nuclear arms agreements, and in this continuing effort we must find a way to end the threat of nuclear annihilation forever."
The president also said:
"Let us simply choose to change the world -- as best we can -- each from our individual place, but towards the common purposes of just societies on a peaceful planet."
These were sentiments also expressed by the pope when he stepped forward to the microphone to speak.
"Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen," he said, I know and appreciate this country's efforts for arms limitation, especially of nuclear weapons.
"Everyone is aware of the terrible risk that the stockpiling of such weapons brings upon humanity. Since it is one of the greatest nations on earth, the United States plays a particularly important part in the quest for greater security in the world and for closer collaboration.
With all my heart I hope that there will be no relaxing of its efforts both to reduce the risk of a fatal and disastrous worldwide conflagration, and to secure a prudent and progressive reduction of the destructive capacity of military arsenals."
He expressed the hope that the United States, "by reason of its special position," may succeed "in influencing the other nations to join in a continuing commitment for disarmament."
After the two leaders finished their formal remarks -- and their official rending of so much often painful and emotional history that made it impossible politically for popes and presidents to join together publicly in common purpose -- they walked away from the microphones. They stood chatting briefly, and then John Paul returned.
"The pope wants to bless you, he said. He paused, adding a pit more drama to words that would underscore all the meaning of the day, and then said:
"With the permission of the president of the United States.