The Friendship of Pope John Paul II and President Reagan — Plus More Commanders-in-Chief’s Catholic Connections

Did you know a U.S. president arranged a Catholic wedding at the White House?

President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II together at the Fairbanks Airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 2, 1984
President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II together at the Fairbanks Airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 2, 1984 (photo: Public domain)

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic (Our Sunday Visitor).

Everyone knows John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic U.S. president. He overcame a long history of anti-Catholicism in America and won at the polls despite cries of alarm that he would take “orders from the Pope.”

Yet Catholics have been connected to the White House throughout U.S. history. Multiple presidents, cognizant that they served all Americans, notwithstanding their religious affiliation, forged personal connections with Catholics that went beyond mere political considerations and revealed an underlying respect and appreciation for Catholicism.

John Adams, the second president, came from an old line of austere Congregationalist New Englanders. Yet his presidency enlarged his religious sympathies. After he left office in 1801, he wrote, “Ask me not whether I am Catholic, or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow disciple with them all.”

A staunch deist, Thomas Jefferson was initially accommodating to Catholicism — but only to a point. Before becoming president, he served as a diplomat in France and enrolled his beloved daughter, Martha, in a convent school. Ignoring the shrill criticisms of Protestants in America, he believed a Catholic education was best for her. 

Then Martha decided she wanted to be a nun and wrote her father, explaining she planned to convert. That was too much for a man even as open-minded as Jefferson. He hurriedly rode his carriage to the door of the abbey and whisked away Martha and his other daughter, Maria. They never returned.

The first first lady with a Catholic upbringing was Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams. Born in London to an Anglican family, she was taken to France by her father and educated in a convent. Unlike the wealthy French girls there, she disdained balls and dancing and instead spent hours on end at Mass or in the chapel in silent adoration.

Adams was traumatized when she was brought back to England and forced to attend an Anglican church. She often fainted during services and repeatedly had to be carried out of the church.

Andrew Jackson, a swaggering, rough-hewn populist who made his own traditions, brought Catholicism directly into the White House. Mary Anne Lewis was the engaging daughter of a supporter, Maj. William Lewis. Jackson had tried to play matchmaker with Mary Anne and his adopted son. After that predictably fizzled, she fell in love with Alphonse Pageot at a White House Christmas party. 

Jackson arranged the Catholic wedding at the White House on Nov. 29, 1832. Father William Matthews of St. Patrick's Church in Washington did the honors. A year later, the priest baptized their baby in the White House.

President John Tyler is barely remembered, but his wife’s startling religious conversion decades after his presidency left a deep impression on America in the tumultuous 1870s. Julia Gardner Tyler, his second wife, was a non-practicing Episcopalian for most of her life. She turned to religion as she confronted family discord and financial troubles, not to mention a society ravaged by the Civil War. She rigorously studied the theology and history of Catholicism and became a Catholic in 1872.

Newspapers nationwide wrote of her unexpected conversion. The stories were credited with easing the acceptance of Catholics. Tyler also became a flashpoint for women facing their own sea of troubles. They wrote to her seeking guidance about Catholicism, and Tyler often responded with literature, pamphlets or personal letters.

Tyler was careful to relate that she freely chose Catholicism, whose most visible members were dogged by rumors and suspicions. “No priest or nun had anything to do with it [her conversion],” she once wrote. “It was simply from my own conviction of it being the best and truest religion as well as real Christianity.”

James Garfield came to understand and appreciate Catholicism during the Civil War. He shared a room with Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, a devout Catholic eager to share his faith. He often brought a priest friend to the quarters, and he solemnly knelt in prayer before going to bed. Garfield began attending Mass with Rosecrans and even had the priest say Mass in his room.

Garfield was duly worried about what his mother might think. “I hope you are not alarmed about my becoming Catholic,” he wrote to her in a letter. Then he could not resist chiding her. “You ought to be glad that I take the time to think and talk about religion at all. I have no doubt the Catholics have been greatly slandered.”

President Garfield was shot in 1881. As he lay dying in the White House, an Irish Catholic maid who was close to him knew what to do. She sprinkled holy water into his milk before he died.

Calvin Coolidge was famously reserved, but the words he spoke on one occasion to Catholic leaders near the White House tamped down a fierce revival of anti-Catholicism. As immigrants flocked to America in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan gained numbers and political power. The Klan gathered in Washington and marched in their white robes in a huge parade. The Klan invited Coolidge to review them, but he refused. Instead, in a park just behind the White House lawn, he warmly spoke to a large contingent of Catholic bishops and priests in the city for a conference.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Pope John XXIII at the Vatican on a world tour in 1959. Mamie, his wife, though a devout Presbyterian, was cognizant of the spiritual needs of the Catholics on the White House staff. Between two rooms of the White House kitchen, she had a plaque placed on the wall with a statue and prayer to the Blessed Mother.

Ronald Reagan may well have become a Catholic if not for happenstance during his childhood. His father was a churchgoing Irish Catholic. His mother was a churchgoing Protestant. What to do? Young Ron’s older brother, Neil, tagged along with their father to the Catholic Mass while Ron attended the First Christian Church with his mother.

His father’s faith remained a part of his life, at least his political life. President Reagan was close to many Catholic religious leaders. After his recovery from being shot in 1981, he began a remarkable spiritual friendship with Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York. The president once confided to Cardinal Cooke that he believed his recovery obligated him to live for others. Cardinal Cooke smartly replied that during his hospital stay, “God was sitting on your shoulders.”

All these stories of presidents and Catholicism pale in comparison to Reagan’s relationship with Pope John Paul II. There was mutual admiration and respect between the two, and Reagan was eager to meet the Pope after watching footage of his celebratory first visit to his Polish homeland in 1979.

The president and the Pope shared similar goals of ending the rule of the Soviets in Eastern Europe, and the two formed a cooperative geopolitical relationship that helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Shortly after Reagan became president in 1981, he asked national security adviser William Clark and CIA Director William Casey, both Catholic, to set up a meeting with the Pope, according to The Age of Reagan by Stephen Hayward.  At the Vatican the following year, Reagan asked the Pope how long he felt it would be before communism was defeated.

“In our lifetimes,” the Pope quickly replied. Reagan smiled, shook the Pope’s hand and said, “Then we can work together.”

Jay Copp is the author of 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic (Our Sunday Visitor).