D.C.'s First Papal Visit, 1979

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Streets are being shut down... Huge crowds are expected to overwhelm the Metro system... There are security concerns... For longtime Washingtonians, the excitement over Pope Francis's inaugural visit is like turning back the clock to 1979.

In October of that year, Pope John Paul II became the first sitting pope to visit D.C. when he came to our fair city at the end of a week-long U.S. Tour, which also included stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Des Moines. (For those keeping track, the 1979 trip was actually John Paul II's second trip to Washington, but his previous visit in 1976 had come before he became pope, when he was Cardinal Karol Joseph Wojtyla. So, technically it doesn't count as a papal visit. Just don't tell the folks in Alexandria's Parkfairfax neighborhood.)

Pope John Paul II with President Jimmy Carter at the White House (Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons)
President Jimmy Carter with Pope John Paul II, October 6, 1979. Photograph by Bill Fitz-Patrick, courtesy National Archives, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons)

Around 11:30am on October 6, the President's Marine One helicopter touched down near the Reflecting Pool and the pontiff stepped out to greet the crowd and dignitaries. Leaders from the Archdiocese of Washington greeted him before Mayor Marion Barry presented a key to the city.

Barry praised the pope as “a friend whose warmth and affection has deeply touched our thoughts, and whose eloquence and example has reminded a world too often absorbed with selfish gain that true greatness can only be achieved when the totality of life is committed to giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, joy to the hopeless, love to the stranger and comfort to the sick and oppressed.”[1]

After some pomp and circumstance, John Paul II was whisked up Connecticut Ave. to St. Matthew's Cathedral and then on to meetings with President Carter at the White House. Following the sit-down with the President, it was on to a meeting with the Organization of American States. The following day, the pope visited Catholic University for a prayer service and more meetings.

Of course all of this was just a precursor for the main event – a Sunday Mass on the National Mall, which officials predicted would attract 1 million worshipers, the biggest gathering ever; bigger than the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and the bicentennial celebration in 1976.

With crowds that size, planners anticipated problems. As The Washington Post put it in its “How-to Guide” for seeing the Pope, “The systems of the city are simply too small. Streets, buses, subway trains, food outlets, medical emergency facilities, yes, even restrooms, will be taxed far beyond ordinary capacity.”[2]

Metro General Manager Richard Page told riders to expect major delays.

The public should know that Metro is not going to be able to handle the crowd expecting to see the Pope. I predict that thousands of people will walk long distances and that there will be massive confusion. We're going to do the best we can.[3]

In an effort to avoid backups at the Farecard machines, Metro officials decided to institute a flat 50 cent fare, which would be collected in barrels by the gates.[4]

The warnings spurred early birds to stake out spots on the Mall on Saturday afternoon – 24 hours before the Mass was to begin. “Parents and their children, young couples and bands of young men and women unfolded their sleeping bags and began a joyous vigil until the next afternoon.... Most in the crowd were young, and as the guitars played and the voices rose in song, there was a sense that this was a bit of Woodstock—but without any scent of marijuana.”[5]

As it turned out, the crowds were much smaller than expected. When Pope John Paul II took the stage around 4pm, an estimated 175,000 people were in attendance. But for many of those who were there, the experience was spiritual. As Kay Sim of Chevy Chase told the Post, “This was the closest you can come to God outside of going to heaven. You felt you were in the presence of God.”[6]


  1. ^ Coleman, Milton and Athelia Knight, “The Greeting: Praise for Pope's 'Warmth,' His 'Eloquence and Example',” The Washington Post, 7 Oct. 1979: A7.
  2. ^ Valentine, Paul W. and Douglas B. Feaver, “A How-to Guide for Seeing the Pope Next Weekend,” The Washington Post, 30 Sep 1979: C1.
  3. ^ "Extra Transit Planned for Pope's Visit," The Washington Post, 14 Sep 1979: B4.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Maraniss, David A., "John Paul's Farewell Mass Celebrates Life: Pope's Farewell Mass Offers Celebration of Life," The Washington Post, 8 Oct 1979: A1.
  6. ^ Ibid.
Last Updated: 
October 4, 2021