Pope John Paul II at the Catholic University of America on Oct. 7, 1979. (Courtesy CUA)

For the Catholic faithful, a papal visit is always historic.

For one university in the nation’s capital, the upcoming visit of Pope Francis provides special bragging rights: It will be the third papal stop at the Catholic University of America in less than 40 years.

Pope John Paul II came in 1979, and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, came in 2008.

The university in Northeast Washington is a natural destination for a traveling pontiff. Founded in 1887 under a papal charter, Catholic U. is overseen by a board that includes numerous bishops and other church clerics. It is not just affiliated with the church; it is the church’s national university in the United States. Catholic U. has schools in fields such as nursing, business, philosophy, engineering, music, arts and sciences. It has a law school and a school of canon law.

The announcement of the pope’s visit was well-timed for the university. It informed its community, including admitted students, of the plans on April 27. That was just before the May 1 deadline for admitted students to decide where to enroll.

University officials are busy planning for the gathering on Sept. 23. On that day, Francis plans to celebrate Mass outdoors on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. During the service, to be held in Spanish, the pope will canonize the 18th-century missionary Blessed Junípero Serra.

Officials told The Washington Post this week that the 6,700 students at the university will get that Wednesday off. Most classes also will be canceled the evening before. But officials said they are trying to impress on students that it’s not just about a celebrity coming to campus. “This is first and foremost a religious experience and the first canonization Mass in the U.S.,” said university spokesman Victor Nakas.

Pictures of previous papal visits from Catholic U.’s archives suggest that it’s hard to overstate the celebrity angle.

John Paul II came in October 1979. Here’s the university’s version of the event:

The University community only had seven weeks to prepare for Pope John Paul II’s visit, which took place on Oct. 7, 1979. Prior to the visit, the University called upon the services of a special-events decorating team to transform the old University gym into a site suitable for the pope’s address. The work crew attached pipes to the gym ceiling and hung yards of drapery. They also built a wooden stage out of theatrical risers, decorated the walls with CUA seals and banners, covered the gym with red carpeting and assembled flower arrangements.

On the day of the visit, Pope John Paul II first visited the Shrine (which had not yet been raised to basilica status), where CUA students lined the steps and cheered. Later, the pope delivered a major speech on Catholic higher education on campus. The crowd of 2,000 people included 240 heads of Catholic institutions of higher learning from around the country.

During his address, Pope John Paul II told the audience, “I cannot help 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.”

The University chorus and orchestra performed several times during the program including a hymn prepared by music professor Robert Ricks, “Serdeczna Matko.” The Pope’s visit to D.C. culminated with a Mass on the Washington Mall for approximately a million people.

Here’s a photo of Gibbons Hall that day, taken from a vantage on east side of what is now the basilica, which is where Francis will appear.


Scene from Catholic U. on the day of the papal visit in 1979. (Courtesy CUA)

The next visit came 29 years later. Again, the university’s version:

When Pope Benedict XVI came to Catholic University in 2008, the University community had more time to prepare and, as a result, students played a larger role. In August 2007, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., then President of the University, learned the Pope would deliver an important address on Catholic education in April 2008.

In the months prior to Pope Benedict’s visit, nearly 400 CUA volunteers were recruited to execute the numerous tasks necessary for the Holy Father’s visit. Architecture students were commissioned to design the altar, papal chair, pulpit, and lectern to be used during the Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Park. A choir of 17 music students were selected from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music to perform the eighth-century chant “Laudes Regiae: Christus Vincit,” as the Pope entered the University center’s Great Room.

On April 16, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Basilica to meet with U.S. bishops and preside over Solemn Vespers in the Crypt Church. While there, he greeted a crowd of thousands students and alumni who had gathered on the University Mall.

The next day, the Pope returned to campus and delivered his address on education at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center before a packed audience of more than 400 Catholic educators. While the Pope spoke, more than 1,000 students gathered on the lawn of CUA’s Columbus School of Law to watch the address live on a JumboTron.

During his address, Pope Benedict XVI greeted his audience as “bearers of wisdom” and spoke of education’s integral place in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News. Stressing the high expectations society places on Catholic educators, he told the audience that such expectation “places upon you a responsibility and offers an opportunity.”

The Pope spoke of “the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God,” especially the younger generation. Thus, he told the audience, “A particular responsibility for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith.”

Here’s an image of Benedict at Catholic U. from the archives. Among the dignitaries with the pontiff was Archbishop Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington. Two years later, Benedict elevated him to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Wuerl participated in the conclave that elected Francis in 2013.


Pope Benedict XVI at Catholic U. on April 17, 2008. (Courtesy CUA)

Now comes Francis, the first Latin American pope, who has made plenty of headlines since his papacy began. It will be interesting to imagine how Catholic U.’s version of his visit will read, years later. The university is already writing about it here.


Pope Francis greets the faithful in Paolo VI Hall, Vatican City, on Aug. 5. (ANSA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO PRESS OFFICE)