When a new pope came to a city in need of saving

Representative Mel King addressed demonstrators during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Boston in 1979.
Bill Greene/globe staff/file
Representative Mel King addressed demonstrators during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Boston in 1979.

The upcoming visit by Pope Francis already feels historic, and it hasn’t even happened yet. It will be his first visit to the United States and will place him squarely before Congress, bringing to Washington a very different kind of American — a proud Argentine, well versed in the history of this hemisphere, who has already helped broker better US relations with Cuba, and seems capable of more fresh thinking to come.

Though Boston is not on the pope’s whirlwind itinerary, New England will pay close attention, thanks to its deep Catholicism and increasingly Latino identity. A Gallup poll in 2014 confirmed that the nation’s first, third, and fourth most Catholic states are Rhode Island (54 percent), Massachusetts (41 percent), and Connecticut (40 percent). Though we may think of local Catholics as historically Irish- and Italian-American, the region’s Latin-American population has been surging over the past decade, reaching 13.4 percent in Connecticut, 12.4 percent in Rhode Island, and 9.6 percent in Massachusetts, according to the 2010 Census. In short, the moment is right for a rethink.

That is how it felt in 1979, too — the year a new pope came to the United States. It began with a tumultuous, unforgettable day in Boston.


The election of Poland’s Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978 sent shock waves around the world, shattering the tradition of Italian pontiffs and delivering a new kind of actor on the world stage. John Paul II radiated an activist’s courage and a particular impatience with the Soviet Union. In the United States, such a pope was electrifying, especially at the height of the Carter malaise and a series of blows to national prestige.

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For a pope to come to Boston at all would have struck the earliest settlers as something close to an apocalyptic event.

The Puritans who came here in the 17th century condemned popes for both religious and political reasons, as they made clear in their ample writings. They disliked large hierarchies; they disliked ritual; and they disliked the Spanish and French armies, invariably supported by popes, who were invading Protestant domains around the world, in a long twilight struggle not unlike the Cold War that would divide Europe three centuries later. Despite its distance from Rome, Boston felt itself to be on the front lines, dodging the threat of French invasion from the North and Spanish pressure from the South.

For all these reasons, early New Englanders loved to rail against popes, without the slightest expectation of ever seeing one. The New England Primer, one of the first books published here, urged children to “abhor that errant Whore of Rome.” Anne Bradstreet, an early poet often celebrated as a dispenser of eco-friendly verse, issued a tirade against “Rome’s Whore” that urged readers to set fire to priestly garments. A 1647 Massachusetts law threatened death to anyone “ordained by any authority, power or jurisdiction, derived, challenged or pretended, from the Pope or See of Rome.” One of Boston’s founders, John Cotton, developed an elaborate theory of the world’s end based on close study of papal misdeeds over history. He predicted that it would all fall apart in 1655, but he died in 1652, three years shy of the much-hoped-for catastrophe.

Rome, of course, paid almost no attention to these exuberant speculations about its imminent demise.


As New England began to accumulate centuries of its own, that kind of talk receded, with a more heterogenous society growing atop the Puritan foundations. In the 19th and 20th centuries, New England was invaded after all — by peaceful Catholics, from Ireland, Italy, Quebec, Portugal, Poland, and other places, seeking a better chance. With time, they not only succeeded on their own terms — but on those of the earlier arrivals, who hoped that New England would serve as a model for the world. When a Catholic was elected president from Massachusetts in 1960, all New England took pride in that achievement. Fittingly, John F. Kennedy quoted from John Winthrop in his farewell to Boston.

When a new pope, John Paul II, decided to begin his US tour in Boston on Oct. 1, 1979, there were no longer fears of an apocalypse. Instead of a rain of toads, it simply rained — a lot, as it turned out. But despite the weather, it was a glorious day for a city that had endured a hard five years of desegregation.

The visit began with an Aer Lingus 747, named after St. Patrick, coming out of the clouds to deliver the pope to the City Upon a Hill. Or more precisely, Upon Landfill, which more technically describes the runway at Logan. At 3:02 p.m. the pontiff kissed the tarmac and gave a short statement. All the local luminaries were there, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Mayor Kevin White, Governor Ed King, and Rosalynn Carter, the president’s wife. Electricity crackled, not only from the incoming storm front, but because it was widely expected that Kennedy would soon announce he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Jimmy Carter.

Furthermore, a local tragedy had brought the city’s much-chronicled racial problems to the surface again. Four days before the pope’s arrival, a 15-year-old African-American, Daryl Williams, was shot by a sniper and paralyzed from the neck down while playing football in Charlestown. In the emotional aftermath of that event, it was unclear whether the city could handle a visit freighted with as many expectations as the pope’s. Kennedy went immediately from the airport to comfort the Williams family at Boston City Hospital.

Back at Logan, the papal motorcade set out with a political purpose that the others on the tarmac would have understood — to see as many of the city’s people as possible. No attempt had yet been made on the pope’s life, and he stood up confidently through the sunroof of his limousine, waving to huge crowds that surged everywhere he went.


But the motorcade moved quickly, whipping through city neighborhoods at about 30 miles an hour. The first stop was East Boston; then a Dante-esque dip into the underworld (the Sumner Tunnel) before a spirited reemergence in the North End, where a crowd of 60,000 lined Hanover Street eight-deep and chanted “Viva il Papa!” at the top of its lungs.

From there, the motorcade sped toward South Boston, where it encountered 500 members of a Polish parish (Our Lady of Czestochowa) in costume. Polish flags waved in Dorchester as well, as the motorcade sped through Edward Everett Square and Uphams Corner (a wry onlooker commented, “I once went through Uphams Corner at that speed, and they gave me a ticket”). The rapid progress continued through Roxbury, Copley Square, and Kenmore Square, before the motorcade reached the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. There the pope gave a short, moving speech that included his own quote from John Winthrop, a most fitting one: “We must love one another with a pure heart. We must bear one another’s burden.”

Despite a torrential downpour, 400,000 people had gathered on the Common. What happened next can safely be described as a unique event in the history of Boston. Sixty-two cardinals and bishops were arrayed onstage for the two-hour Mass, in all their pageantry. With the rain and mud, the costumes, and the huge sound system, it resembled an alternative version of Woodstock. Very alternative: The pope’s homily urged youth to turn away from sex and drugs. Cardinal Humberto Medeiros movingly asked the crowds to pray for Daryl Williams, who may have heard the crowds from his hospital room. The pope then retired for the night to Cardinal Medeiros’s Brighton home.

The next day, the pope left for New York, and it was over. He’d go on to a long and historic papacy and never return to this city. But for all Bostonians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, it had been a remarkably unifying day, not only for the pope’s remarks, but for the simple fact that a world leader had made the rounds of so many divided neighborhoods in a single, wild ride. There had never been anything like it in Boston’s rich history; there never will be again. Despite minor disruptions — a crowd protested racism in the South End, and a few people collapsed from nervous exhaustion — the city stayed calm. Eighty-five hundred uniformed officers helped to keep order; the MBTA ran on time (250,000 rode the trains to the Mass), and the people rose to the occasion as well.

Ted Widmer is a regular Ideas contributor. He is a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.