By Mark Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to the nation's capital "was a great gift," as will be Pope Benedict XVI's April 15-17 trip to Washington, said
The cardinal, now retired, was Washington's archbishop from 1973 to 1980 and hosted Pope John Paul's visit.
He recalled that those who had to prepare for it had only a short time to get ready.
"We only had a couple of months!" he told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper, in an interview at his residence. He chuckled and said, "Looking back, I don't know how we did it."
Then he answered, "With God's grace!"
The first pastoral visit by a pope to the capital of the United States remains a cherished memory for Cardinal Baum, who retired in 2001 after 11 years as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican office that deals with matters of conscience. Before that he was prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education for 10 years.
Cardinal Baum once summarized the 1979 papal visit to Washington as "a moment of grace."
That visit shares many elements with Pope Benedict's planned visit, including meeting the president at the White House, visiting the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – named a basilica after Pope John Paul's visit – and meeting with educators from across the country at The Catholic University of America. The pope in 1979 also visited the United Nations in New York City, as will his successor.
Cardinal Baum described how President Jimmy Carter, a religious man, welcomed the pope to the White House with great respect. The prelate added that he was greatly moved to look out and see the 175,000 people gathered for the pope's Mass on the National Mall.
"It was a great moment," he said.
One image that Cardinal Baum especially cherishes comes from something that was unplanned – an impromptu greeting from the pope to people gathered outside one of the stops on his itinerary.
After Pope John Paul had joined 400 ecumenical leaders for a prayer service at the Notre Dame Chapel at what is now Trinity University, a crowd of people, many in wheelchairs, waited outside for his blessing.
"The idea was he would drive by, and he would give a blessing. It wasn't intended that he would stop. Of course, the Holy Father wouldn't just give a blessing and drive by. He stopped, went out of the car, went to ... (many) of them and took their hand and gave them a blessing," the cardinal said.
That loving approach to people was typical of Pope John Paul, who as pope was "the universal father," said Cardinal Baum, adding that the current pontiff shares that quality. "He has that sense, he is a father, he has this gentleness, this infinitely kind and patient way with him," he said.
There are only two cardinal electors who took part in both the 1978 conclaves, when Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II were elected, and the 2005 conclave, when Pope Benedict XVI was elected. One was Cardinal Baum, and the other was German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict three years ago.
"I came to know him very well," Cardinal Baum says of the current pope, whom he met in the early 1960s when both were younger priests serving as theological experts to bishops during the Second Vatican Council. Later, as cardinals they served together on Vatican congregations and on the commission that prepared the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.
"He (Pope Benedict XVI) is a man of powerful and keen intellect, and formidable as a theologian. Also though ... notwithstanding his profound intellectual gifts, he is a very gentle and humble person," Cardinal Baum said.
And as his papacy unfolds, he said, Pope Benedict "will surprise us" the way his predecessor did. Pope John Paul surprised people "with his great, loving outreach to the world," he said, and Pope Benedict will do the same "with his deep intellect and profound faith."
Pope Benedict's visit, he said, will be "a great source of grace for the church of Washington. ... I hope with confidence that the presence of the Holy Father, and his message, will be a source of grace, a renewal, a reaffirmation of our Catholic faith, and a call to examine ourselves (and) how we live our faith."
Asked what advice he has for people to get the most out of the papal visit while it is happening, Cardinal Baum said, "Let them see it as a time of prayer, the visit of the pope, see it as a renewal of their own faith. ... Ask the intercession of our Blessed Lady, to prepare us for this marvelous event, (which will be) a sign of God's love for us, and a time of grace."
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