Pope John Paul reaches out to people during his 1979 visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Directly behind him is Cardinal Baum, then the archbishop of Washington.
Pope John Paul reaches out to people during his 1979 visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Directly behind him is Cardinal Baum, then the archbishop of Washington.
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Much like those preparing for Pope Benedict's April 2008 visit to Washington, those planning for Pope John Paul II's October 1979 visit to the nation's capital only had a short time to prepare for the papal visit.

"We only had a couple of months!" said Cardinal William Baum, who was the archbishop of Washington then and hosted Pope John Paul II's visit nearly three decades ago. The retired prelate, interviewed recently at his Washington residence, chuckled and said, "Looking back, I don't know how we did it."

Then he answered, "With God's grace!"

And, on a practical note, he said the planners for the 1979 visit, "because we had such a short time, we had to immerse ourselves" in preparing for the Holy Father's arrival.

"It was a great gift, and so will this one (be)," said the cardinal, who served as Washington's archbishop from 1973-80, when he was named prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education. He led that congregation for the next decade.

Welcoming Pope John Paul II to Washington in 1979 for the first pastoral visit by a pope to the capital of the United States, remains a cherished memory of Cardinal Baum, who retired in 2001 as head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican office that deals with matters of conscience. He once summarized the Holy Father's 1979 visit to Washington as "a moment of grace."

Pope John Paul II's visit then shares many elements with Pope Benedict's planned visit next month, including meeting the president at the White House, visiting the National Shrine, and meeting with educators from across the country at the Catholic University of America.

"I remember so well the visit of 1979," said Cardinal Baum, who is now 81 and has a home in Washington and an apartment in Rome. The cardinal described how President Carter, a religious man, welcomed Pope John Paul II to the White House with great respect. And Washington's former archbishop said he was very 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 from that papal visit was unplanned. After Pope John Paul II had joined 400 ecumenical leaders for a prayer service at Trinity College's Notre Dame Chapel, 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.

Remembering Pope John Paul II's tender gesture that day to the sick and disabled who had hoped for his blessing, Cardinal Baum said, "He reached out to people, and they were reaching out to him."

That loving approach to people was typical of Pope John Paul II, who as pope was "the universal father," said Cardinal Baum, who added that the current pontiff shares that quality. "Benedict, he has that sense, he is a father, he has this gentleness, this infinitely kind and patient way with him," he said.

Only two cardinal electors took part in the conclaves of both 1978, when Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II were elected, and 2005, 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... not withstanding his profound intellectual gifts, he is a very gentle and humble person," Cardinal Baum said. "He has a great respect for everyone. He listens very intently to what is being said. He listens with great care and great respect. He doesn't just listen to you. He listens with respect."

That quality shapes the heart of Pope Benedict's papacy, the cardinal said. "He's still the same man, even though he's now the pope, the supreme authority. We look to him for guidance. He hasn't lost that capacity to listen to others. He's so patient."

And as his papacy unfolds, Pope Benedict "will surprise us, I think, as John Paul did with his great, loving outreach to the world. Pope Benedict, with his deep intellect and profound faith, will also surprise us," Cardinal Baum said.

Now Cardinal Baum is back home in Washington, and he participates in many major religious services, like the March 17 Chrism Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral, where the concelebrants included current Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus.

"It is a great blessing, especially at this time of my life," Cardinal Baum said of living in Washington again. "I've always kept my love for Washington alive in my prayer. My appreciation for the Church of Washington and for the people of Washington has grown as I've come back."

And like many Washington-area Catholics, he is excited about Pope Benedict's upcoming visit. "We're getting ready for another great moment in the life of the Church in Washington," he said.

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."

The cardinal is especially looking forward to joining Pope Benedict and the Catholic bishops of the United States in an evening prayer service at the Crypt Church of the National Shrine. And of the pope's visit to Catholic University, he said, "I'm expecting he will give us a message about the importance of Catholic universities in the life of the Church and the world. He's very much an academic man. He's a teacher."

Cardinal Baum offered advice on how Catholics can prepare for the pope's visit to Washington next month.

"The best way to prepare is through prayer," he said.

The cardinal also encouraged people to receive the sacraments in preparation of the Holy Father's visit. "I would like to emphasize especially the reception of the Sacrament of Penance," he said. "Faithful Catholics are very aware of the meaning of the Mass and of the efficacy of the Blessed Sacrament in their lives. However, in recent times, there has been a certain de-emphasis on receiving the Sacrament of Penance. I believe that is the cause of some of our problems."

By a careful examination of conscience, people can reflect on how they have responded "to the truth of Christ given us by the Church, and how do we live out our faith," he said. Confession reminds people of their own spiritual frailty, and their need for God's grace, he added.

"We are cleansed, receiving the sacrament," he said.

Cardinal Baum praised Archbishop Wuerl's two pastoral letters encouraging people to go to Confession, and the archdiocese's "Light Is On for You" campaign in the media and on buses and trains.

"...God's light is always there. He's always there to hear you, to listen to you, to heal you. He does that through a priest. That's a great gift we have in the Church.... The grace of the sacrament is there. It gives you so much joy," the cardinal said.

And when 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."