Memories of John Paul II

Cardinal Szoka Recalls Pope’s Memorable Visit and Their Trip to Poland

Pope John Paul II is seen during a 1993 visit to Asti, Italy.
Pope John Paul II is seen during a 1993 visit to Asti, Italy. (photo: CNS photo from L'Osservatore Romano, Arturo Mari)

One of the major highlights of Cardinal Edmund Szoka’s tenure as archbishop of Detroit was the success of his persistent efforts to draw Pope John Paul II to the city during his 1987 U.S. visit. Detroit had not been on the original itinerary.

Now retired, Cardinal Szoka spends most of his time in the Detroit area. He is currently in Rome to visit friends and to participate in Holy Week ceremonies.

He is also remembering John Paul, who died five years ago April 2. Pope Benedict XVI offered Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica March 29 to commemorate the anniversary.

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Sept. 14, 1927, Cardinal Szoka was the only son of Polish immigrants. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 5, 1954, by Bishop Thomas Noa at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Marquette, Mich. He later accompanied Bishop Noa on his trip to the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

After serving as Bishop of Gaylord, Mich., for nearly 10 years, Cardinal Szoka was named archbishop of Detroit in 1981. He was made a cardinal in 1988 and appointed president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See in 1990. In this position, Cardinal Szoka balanced the Vatican City State’s budget after 23 consecutive years of deficits.

Cardinal Szoka went on to serve as president of the Governorate of Vatican City State and president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. He participated in the conclave which elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and retired from his duties at the Vatican in 2006.

Cardinal Szoka spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie before leaving for Rome.

What is the purpose of your visit to Rome?
I will be in Rome until May 25, when I will return to the Detroit area. The reason for my return to Rome at this time is mainly to visit friends and because I like to spend the Lenten season in Rome and I especially like to be there for the great papal ceremonies of Holy Week. These ceremonies are celebrated in a manner which is the greatest in the world.

Since I am 82 years old, I have no specific duties anymore in the Vatican or for the Holy See. At the age of 80, we are required to retire from all responsibilities by the rules of the Holy See. Last year when I was in Rome, I volunteered to do some work for the Congregation for Bishops, which deals with the appointment of bishops in established countries, and I also volunteered to do some work for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which deals with the appointment of bishops in missionary countries.

I had served on both these congregations for 18 years. They accepted my offer, and I did help on one occasion for the Congregation for Bishops and on four occasions for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. I don’t know if they will ask me to help again, but if they do, I will.

What do you think of Pope Benedict’s first five years as Pope?
I think Pope Benedict is doing extraordinarily well as supreme pontiff. He has written three encyclicals and has given numerous discourses on various aspects of the faith and living the faith. He is an outstanding theologian, and all his talks reflect his remarkable knowledge of the Church’s theology and its history.

I have just recently finished reading a book entitled God and the World by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is actually a very long interview that he gave as a cardinal to a very knowledgeable reporter Peter Seewald. The book reflects his profound knowledge of theology as well as Church history, and I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who would like to experience his great intellectual capacity.

Pope Benedict has not only done well as a great theologian, but as a dedicated pastor. He has visited a number of countries; he gives innumerable audiences and reaches out pastorally to all groups. He has recently visited the main Jewish synagogue in Rome and a shelter for the homeless. He has demonstrated his great pastoral zeal and love for people in many ways. He gives himself tirelessly in many, many audiences to bishops, laypeople and to various groups, as well as doing his Wednesday general audiences.

Detroit was not originally a destination for Pope John Paul II in his 1987 U.S. visit, but you were successful in getting him to change his itinerary.

As you know, the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, had made a previous visit to the United States. During that visit he had visited the major Archdioceses of Boston, New York Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago. His second visit in 1987 was to be concentrated mainly on the southern and western part of the United States, that is, Miami and then San Antonio, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Pope’s itinerary in the United States was to be suggested by the Administrative Council of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. All the bishops interested in having the Pope visit their dioceses had to inform the bishops’ conference, and the Administrative Committee drew up the itinerary and sent it to Rome. Even though I asked them to include Detroit, they did not. I appealed their decision to them without success.

However, I felt very strongly the Holy Father should visit Detroit because it was the only major archdiocese in the United States that he had not visited. Accordingly, I wrote a letter in Polish directly to the Holy Father asking him to include Detroit. I did not receive a response. But that was a good sign because I did not receive a negative answer.

Then, in 1986, I made a trip to the Holy Land, and on the way back I stopped in Rome, and the Holy Father invited me to have dinner with him. During the dinner we spoke about various things, but he did not mention his trip to the United States. At the end of the meal I asked him if he was going to come to Detroit. He took me by the arm and said, “Well, we’re preparing right now to go to South America, and you know I receive many invitations.” Again, he did not say yes, but he did not say no. Before I left his apartment, his secretary suggested to me that I see the substitute secretary of state, who was in charge of all the papal trips.

The next day I went to see him and told him I was very disturbed that Detroit would be the only major see the Pope would not have visited. The substitute secretary understood my concern and said, “We’ll have to do something, perhaps send a letter to the people of Detroit.” I did not find that very satisfactory, and I left Rome with a certain disappointment. I felt I had done everything I possibly could to get the Holy Father to Detroit but that it didn’t seem likely.

Then in January of 1987, I received a call from the conference’s headquarters in Washington that the Holy Father would come to Detroit and that he himself had decided to do this by cutting short by half a day his visit to San Francisco and adding a day to his itinerary. The other cities to which he was going had already known for a year that he was coming and had a long time to prepare. Since I didn’t find out until January of 1987, we had only eight months to prepare because he came to Detroit in September. However, we immediately went to work, and with the help of many people we succeeded in preparing for his visit.

What are some of the memories you have of the visit?

I have many beautiful, fond memories of his visit to Detroit. For me personally, one of the most moving experiences was the fact that he stayed overnight in my home on Boston Boulevard. However, the greatest and most inspiring event was the Mass he had at the Silverdome. There were 100,000 people at that Mass. Because it was a domed stadium, we had transformed it into a massive cathedral so that people were seated on the field as well as in the stands.

I was sitting with the Pope in his Popemobile when they opened the large doors and we drove out onto the track around the field. It was a fantastic experience to be in that setting with 100,000 people. I am sure the Holy Father was very moved. Several people in his retinue told me afterwards how great that liturgy was. Some of the cardinals who were there also told me how moving it was in that setting.

You had the opportunity to visit Poland with Pope John Paul II when it was still under communist rule. That must have been quite an experience.

I was with the Holy Father in Poland several times while it was still under communist rule. I remember very vividly his visit to Gda?sk, where the Solidarity movement originated. They had built a large outside altar in the form of a ship because Gda?sk was the shipbuilding center for Poland. In his speech the Holy Father did not directly speak about communism, but he did fearlessly speak about human dignity and the right of human beings to freely choose their religion and their government. It was a very courageous speech.

I also was with him in Krakow where they had the Mass at an enormous park. There were 2 million people at the Mass, and it’s impossible to describe that incredible number of people. That huge field was surrounded by small hills, and as far as I could see there were people all the way up on those very distant hills. That Mass was also a great inspiration.

What other fond memories do you have of Pope John Paul II from your days of working at the Vatican?

I came to know the Holy Father quite well. He was like a very kind, loving father to me. He always helped me and supported me in my work in the Holy See and in the Vatican. That help and support made it possible for me to accomplish a number of things.

He was also very kind to me on a personal level. If I asked for an audience and he didn’t have time to give me one, he would invite me to have lunch with him. That was an advantage because I would have more time to talk with him. The only problem was that while I was talking and explaining what he needed to know about my work, he would listen attentively but he would keep eating. Because I was talking I couldn’t keep up with the eating.

During the years I was in Rome, the Holy Father always invited me for Christmas dinner and Easter dinner. Those were always very cheerful and happy occasions which I will never forget. Naturally, the Holy Father was tired after all the great ceremonies on those two big feast days, so his dinners were a time for him to relax. For that reason, the conversation was always in Polish and therefore all the people who were invited to the dinner, which was about 10, all spoke Polish. I think that simply helped the Holy Father to relax a little more.

Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.