Personal Reflections On The Pope’s Historic Visit

By Patrick Leahy

Pope Francis’s visit this week to Washington, including his address to a Joint Meeting of Congress, will make history.  And for many Americans, including me, it stirs memories from an earlier chapter.

Like millions of others, Catholic or not, I appreciate Pope Francis’s energetic message of compassion and justice for the poor, tolerance for the faiths and beliefs of others, sound stewardship of our planet, and peaceful co-existence in our troubled world.  In the discussions that are leading to the normalization of relations between our country and Cuba, I was proud to have been able to act as an intermediary in the exchange of messages among President Obama, Pope Francis – who is the first Pope to have come from the New World -- and Cardinal Ortega of Cuba.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine it today, but a few short decades ago it would have been considered unthinkable that a pontiff would be invited to address the Congress.

I was born and raised in Montpelier, almost literally in the shadow of our state capitol.  As a boy I caught the excitement of John F. Kennedy’s candidacy, and I vividly remember going door to door as a Kennedy volunteer.  Just about everyone was friendly; that’s the Vermont way.  Some said they intended to vote for JFK, and others, for Nixon.  Some hadn’t yet decided.  I met many folks who said they didn’t like Nixon, but they couldn’t vote for a Catholic.  Elsewhere in the nation, Americans were warned from pulpits, often in sinister tones, that the Pope would be pulling the strings at the White House if Kennedy were elected.

Every society harbors some angst and even some hostility toward immigrants.  Suspicion and even bigotry against Catholics, immigrant or not, wasn’t uncommon in earlier American history, even in Vermont.  My dad encountered “No Catholics Need Apply” signs in many shop windows when looking for a job.  That was also taken to mean that no Irish need apply.

JFK directly confronted that unease about his Catholic faith and voiced his constitutionally grounded adherence to the separation of church and state, in his legendary address to a large gathering of protestant ministers in Houston.  He went on to narrowly win the election, and his victory and his service as president were a catalyst that began generating more acceptance of Catholics, including in public office. 

Later I was a young law student at Georgetown Law Center, a Jesuit school, during the all-too-brief Kennedy Administration.  I was already seeing signs that the bias was beginning to dissipate.  And today it has largely disappeared from overt political life.  No state’s people are more tolerant than Vermonters are.  My grandparents would be surprised -- and, I think, proud – to learn that their grandson became the first (and still only) Catholic Vermonter to be elected to the U.S. Senate.  I wouldn’t have had much of a chance in that first election if not for JFK’s example.

In the span of mere decades, tolerance has largely replaced anti-Catholic bias in our public life.  In these few short decades, think how things have changed:  Today Catholic lawmakers hold some of the nation’s highest offices.  About a third of today’s members of Congress are Catholic.  At the time that I was the Senate’s president pro tem two years ago, the line of presidential succession was dominated by Catholic officeholders: Vice President Biden, then Speaker Boehner and then me.  House Democratic Leader Pelosi is a Catholic.  We have some distance yet to go in achieving the same kind of tolerance for other groups and faiths in our society.

With all that the world is going through, and with all that the Church has gone through, I am one of millions who welcome the Pope’s inspiring actions and expressions of compassion and justice for those in need, and of tolerance for the beliefs and the faiths of others. 

This historic week will be one that I will always remember.

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[Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the first Catholic elected to the Senate from Vermont and in recent years became the Senate’s first Dean (most senior member) who is a Catholic.]

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