Archbishop John R. Quinn Reflects on John Paul II and Francis at the White House

“I believe that Pope Francis will set a positive tone urging the church and society to work together in a positive search for the common good,” the emeritus archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, said in this exclusive interview on the eve of the papal visit to the United States.

Archbishop Quinn was president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference when John Paul II visited President Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1979 – the first pope ever to do so. He accompanied the Polish pope on that historic occasion.

Although the archbishop-emeritus no longer gives interviews, he agreed to make an exception on this occasion and share with America his memories of that first visit in the light of earlier history, and how he sees Pope Francis’ visit to President Obama and the U.S. Congress. The archbishop will be in Congress when the pope speaks.

You accompanied John Paul II on the first ever visit of a pope to the White House. What memories do you have of that historic moment? 

As president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops I had the privilege of accompanying Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States in 1979.

The most prominent event in my memory is the visit of the pope to the White House where he was welcomed by President Carter. The president greeted the pope on his arrival at the main entrance to the White House and then took him to the private family quarters where the pope met with the president and Mrs. Carter and other members of the Carter family. I and other members of our group were received by the president’s mother, commonly referred to as “Miss Lillian,” in a reception room near the main entrance.

What happened after their private encounter?

After the private visit in the family quarters, the pope and the president went to the open space at the back of the White House where there was a very large group consisting of members of Congress and distinguished, well-known Americans. I sat next to Mrs. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King. The pope addressed this group briefly and the president stood slightly behind him, at times adjusting the cape on the papal cassock during the morning breeze. There was an evident ease and friendly feeling between the two men.

That visit made history and reflected a major change in the political climate regarding Catholicism. Could you tell me how you saw it then, what thoughts went through your mind as you entered the White House with the pope?

I said that this visit to the White House was the most prominent single event in my memory, because for me it had very great historic overtones. When I was a boy, 7 years old in 1936, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State (four years later, he was Pope Pius XII), visited the United States. There was such anti-Catholic bias at the time that President Roosevelt was unable to meet the cardinal at the White House and as a result arranged to meet him at his personal home in Hyde Park, New York. I had remembered hearing of this in school and in comments in my family at the time. That memory was strong in my thoughts as I walked side by side with Pope John Paul II and we crossed the threshold of the White House.

I thought to myself about the tremendous change of climate which made it possible, not for the representative of the pope, but for the pope himself to meet the president of the United States in the White House. That even a representative of the pope could not enter the White House in 1936 was proof of the observation of the distinguished historian, Arthur Schlesinger, that “The anti-Catholic bias is the deepest bias in the American people.” This was manifest not only at the visit of Cardinal Pacelli but a few years before in the presidential campaign of the New York Catholic, Al Smith, and among other things, in the very visible anti-Catholic bias of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. This bias also showed itself when John Kennedy was running and prominent religious leaders such as Doctor Norman Vincent Peale and even Doctor Martin Luther King spoke publicly against the election of a Catholic.

You were present when John Paul II and President Carter met. What was the dynamic between them like? 

Certainly the relationship between Pope John Paul and President Carter was very positive and cordial. The visit was a great success. It deepened the positive attitude of the president to the Catholic Church and also reinforced the positive relationship between the Catholic bishops and the White House which made it possible for the bishops to approach the president and contributed to the president’s willingness to act to admit the Vietnamese refugees.

I know, for example, from my work in the Bishops’ Conference then, that this cooperative relationship between the Catholic bishops and the president played an important role in working out a path to receive the large numbers of people fleeing Vietnam at that time. The Conference guaranteed to the president that through Catholic Charities and other service agencies, the church would insure housing and work if he would authorize their entry into the United States, which he did.

Is it true that you didn’t have much time that first visit?

The second visit of John Paul II in 1987, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI and now the imminent visit of Pope Francis; all were planned and prepared over the better part of a year. But for the papal visit in 1979 we had only three months’ notice. In fact the time was so short that the Conference had to hire a special staff person– Mr. Robert Lynch, a layman. Mr. Lynch later returned to the seminary and in time, after his ordination as a priest, he became General Secretary of the Conference and is now Bishop of St. Petersburg, Florida. He was expert in organization and very effective in dealing with people, keeping things on track, getting things done and keeping peace. The staff of the Conference had some dealings with Roman authorities, but the major dealings were done between the Holy See and the Apostolic Delegation in Washington.

Compared with when John Paul II first visited President Carter, how do you see the political climate in the United States today? 

The United States is far more polarized now on key issues such as immigration, inequality, violence and gun control, racism, growing and wide-spread drug traffic, and the crucial issues of the “care of our common home” in the face of the alarming problems of global warming, the trivialization of human life and the manifold reification of the human person. There are many other issues that could be mentioned, but these serve to indicate some of the deep divisions that stridently divide the American people and paralyze our legislative bodies.

Given this polarization in politics, how do you think Pope Francis will approach the situation in his speech to Congress and during his visit to the United States?

I believe that Pope Francis is likely to reflect the injunction of the Letter of Paul to Timothy that “a bishop should not be contentious.” I believe that he will set a positive tone urging the church and society to work together in a positive search for the common good as John Paul and President Carter did even in the face of differences and challenges.

Francis, the first pope from the Americas, will soon visit President Obama at the White House. How do you read this?

This visit of Pope Francis to President Obama at the White House can be understood on several levels. Of course, it is a mark of respect on the part of the pope for the American people and for our country. But I do think we have to see in the pope’s going to the White House at this neuralgic moment in American racial relations, an acknowledgement of one of the great achievements of the American people, the election of the first African-American president and a solidarity with those African-American people who take pride in it. I share the hope of so many Americans that the visit of Pope Francis will stir the national imagination to dream again of one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

Francis will address a Joint Session of the United States Congress on September 24, the first pope to do so. You will be there on this historic occasion too. What is the significance of this? 

I think it bespeaks a general high regard for Pope Francis as a credible and powerful moral voice which the representatives of the American people want to hear. I believe that there is no other single moral voice which can speak to the world today as the pope can.

That the pope has accepted this invitation to address the Congress of the United States is also an expression on his part of the vital role of the United States in the yearning of all peoples for liberty and justice. It is my belief that he recognizes the great and inspiring ideals of our Founding Fathers, recognizes the accomplishments of the past and, even with our admitted failings, he recognizes the tremendous potential the United States has for starting a new symphony of peace composed in a new key. The significance of the address to Congress, I think, lies in the affirmation that great dreams and great horizons brought this nation into being and that those dreams can live anew in our time to walk in friendship with all peoples of good will to build a world worthy of human beings.

Sep 16, 2015 Gerard O'Connell

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