DETROIT — One of the biggest events in the life of the Catholic Church in southeast Michigan took place 25 years ago this month, when Bl. John Paul II made a pastoral visit to Detroit.
And despite the passage of a quarter-century, that papal visit of Sept. 18-19, 1987, still lives in the memories of those who participated in the preparations or just attended the various events.
The visit was not only a stellar highlight of Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka’s time as archbishop of Detroit, but was only made possible by the cardinal’s wouldn’t-take-no-for-an-answer persistence in lobbying for the Motor City’s inclusion in the pope’s itinerary.
“It wasn’t easy,” Cardinal Szoka said of the process that brought the first Polish pope to the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Papal officials had left the scheduling of the Holy Father’s pastoral visit up to the U.S. bishops, and they did not grant the Detroit archbishop’s request to include a stop here. But that didn’t end the matter for Cardinal Szoka.
“I wrote to the pope directly,” he recalled. And while he didn’t get a yes in response, “I didn’t get a no,” he added.
Then, after a 1986 visit to the Holy Land, the cardinal stopped in Rome, where the pope invited him to breakfast. “I asked him, ‘Holy Father, are you coming to Detroit?’ He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no,” Cardinal Szoka recounted.
Instead, the pope suggested the cardinal speak with the Vatican’s substitute secretary of state, who told him that the Holy Father’s previous pastoral visit to the United States took in northern and eastern cities, whereas the forthcoming trip was intended to be to southern and western destinations.
To which the cardinal responded, “But what am I going to tell my people?’”
Cardinal Szoka continued to ask the pope in writing and directly, and in January 1987 came the word that the Detroit visit was on for that September.
As soon as he got the call, Cardinal Szoka called then-Auxiliary Bishop Dale Melczek, appointing him director in charge of all the arrangements for the visit.
“I was skiing in northern Michigan, and the cardinal called me and told me the pope was coming, and that I had to attend a planning meeting in Miami the next day,” recalled Bishop Melczek, since 1992 the bishop of Gary, Ind.
Everybody else at that meeting, representing the other cities on the visit plus then-Fr. Robert Lynch (now bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla.) for the bishops’ conference, had already been working on their plans for a year. Bishop Melczek, on the other hand, had to bring everything together in just nine months.
“It was one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my life,” he said.
Bishop Melczek returned to Detroit and organized 20 committees, each with responsibility for planning some aspect of the visit or some particular venue. After all, the pope would arrive at Metropolitan Airport, be taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Major Seminary, then by motorcade to the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and spend the night around the corner at the archbishop’s residence.
The next day, he would address permanent deacons from throughout the United States at Ford Auditorium, deliver a major address on social justice at nearby Hart Plaza, take part in a parade and celebration in the heavily Polish enclave of Hamtramck, and celebrate Mass for 100,000 of the faithful at the Pontiac Silverdome before returning to the airport by helicopter for a meeting with Vice President George H.W. Bush and departure.
And besides working with those 20 committees, there were weekly meetings with the U.S. Secret Service, which would have responsibility for the pontiff’s security as a foreign head of state.
But in all that coordination of detail, Bishop Melczek said he never lost sight of the importance of the papal visit as “an enormous opportunity for evangelization — to have someone so important as the pope come to Detroit to bring the Gospel message of hope and peace and reconciliation in person.”
“This was a major event for sharing the faith in a very public manner, and not only for Catholics, but for other people of good will,” he said.
Bishop Melczek called the visit “enormously exciting,” and recalled how there was tremendous cooperation on the part of local municipalities and major corporations, as well as the outpouring of affection from so many people.
“It seemed as if everybody had a place in his or her heart for John Paul II, and this was true of Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” the bishop added.
Fr. Douglas Bignall, now pastor of St. Thecla Parish in Clinton Township, was a 21-year-old college seminarian when Bl. John Paul II made his pastoral visit.
He had worked that summer at the seminary, so he saw all the preparations that took place in the weeks before classes even resumed for the fall term. And still has vivid memories of the pope’s arrival by helicopter on the improvised heliport on the seminary grounds, where then-Fr. Allen Vigneron stood in for the seminary’s ailing rector to greet the distinguished visitor.
The pope then asked to see the seminarians, and strode directly toward where Fr. Bignall and his classmates were standing. “I was one of the first people he walked toward to greet,” he said.
Fr. Bignall recalled how the pope shook hands with each of them and blessed them, before going over to meet the seminary staff.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I got to meet the Vicar of Christ,’ and running inside the seminary to find a phone to call my family,” he said.
Reflecting on the experience of meeting Bl. John Paul II, Fr. Bignall said he “recognized immediately a sense of holiness, that here was a person of depth, a man of God.”
Many of those memories came flooding back to him when he delivered the homily at the Mass for the start of the new school year at St. Thecla School on Aug. 28, because the readings included St. Paul’s discourse on the gifts the Spirit.
“That was the theme of the pope’s visit — ‘Unity in the Work of Service’ — and how we use those gifts together as the Body of Christ,” Fr. Bignall said.
For Cardinal Szoka, there were many special moments during the visit, such as riding with the Holy Father in the “Popemobile” and the entrance into the vast expanse of the Silverdome. “Because of the dome, it was like a big cathedral,” he said.
But some of his memories include times that were not televised or witnessed by large crowds, such as when the exhausted pontiff nevertheless insisted on spending some time at prayer in the cardinal’s private chapel before turning in on the night of his arrival.
Another time was when Bl. John Paul II met with all those who had been involved in organizing his Detroit visit in the cathedral center to thank them. “He was always very sensitive to thanking people,” Cardinal Szoka said.
Ironically, one of the most visible members of the local clergy during the papal visit never got to meet the pope. Then-Fr. Donald Hanchon (now an auxiliary bishop) spent 13 hours during those two days in the Southfield studios of WXYZ-TV, where he joined new anchor Bill Bonds to do the color commentary for the station’s coverage of the visit.
It was an arduous job, but Bishop Hanchon said “it was a great experience and I felt happy I could be of some help.”
“I never got to see the pope, but he spent the night in what had been my bedroom when I lived at the cardinal’s residence,” he said.