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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Remembering another pope's visit to Washington 36 years ago

Pope John Paul II responds to the enthusiastic

Pope John Paul II responds to the enthusiastic crowd outside St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington on Oct. 6, 1979, as he leaves for a meeting at the White House with Pres. Jimmy Carter. Photo Credit: AP / Anonymous

There's a black-and-white photo of Pope John Paul II waving to an enthusiastic crowd from an open-topped limo in front of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

It's October 1979.

And among those lucky enough to be among the crowd on the shrine's front steps is my mom. And me.

It's almost impossible to overstate the power of a papal visit, as so many will discover this week as Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, Washington -- becoming the third pope to make a stop at the shrine -- and New York City.

For me, the shrine was almost like our second home church.

My grandfather worked on the building, which was under construction for decades.

My family lived near enough to go to Mass, sometimes for Easter but just as often with our Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops.

As children, we explored the areas underneath. And we'd always hit the gift shop -- where there was a sheet that identified patron saints.

You could match them by your given name -- which gave me St. Philip Neri, the patron saint of joy; or by your Confirmation name, which had been a tough choice for my fifth-grade self because I'd wanted St. Teresa of Avila. She once said, "To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience." But I ended up choosing to take the high road by going with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who, in her zeal to resist temptation, never would have considered such a thing.

My childhood prayer book came from the shrine; so did the rosary we later would bury with my mom.

Once, when the combined choir from my all-girls school and our brother all-boys school sang the "Hallelujah" chorus, churchgoers turned, looked up toward the choir loft and broke into applause.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II became the first sitting pope ever to visit the shrine. The night before he came, my mom said she wanted to go and see him.

No problem, I assured her. The Catholic University of America abuts the shrine. I knew the campus well since a few summers earlier, I'd attended a program for high school journalists.

The next day, we took a back way into campus, parked the car and walked toward the side of the church. To our surprise, the steps were almost empty -- even as the surrounding area already was full, as, in time, our side of the stairs would be, too.

At one point, the shrine doors opened, and Pope John Paul II stepped out.

He walked down, giving his blessing, and going from one side to the other to shake hands. He moved so close that I could have touched him; so close that he did reach out and touch my mom.

Pope John Paul II had an aura about him, something ethereal, yet palpable and strong. He didn't seem a man dressed in pope's garb; he seemed otherworldly. I think that was the first and only time I, in my early 20s, understood what holiness could mean.

That revelation, even after more than three decades, is what I remember most.

That, and the "Have a Pope and a Smile" banner -- a play on a then-popular Coca-Cola commercial -- hanging on a building nearby.

In 1990, John Paul II designated the shrine as a minor basilica -- now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Last year, John Paul II was canonized a saint -- by another pope. Who chose the name Francis.

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