Pius IX First to Touch U.S. 'Territory'
Twelve sailors rowed the pontiff past Spanish, French, and British warships with their yards manned. As the papal party drew near a majestic frigate, cannons roared a 21-gun salute and the papal flag was hoisted to the top of the mainmast.
The barge was gently lifted to the level of the frigate's deck and His Holiness was piped aboard with full naval solemnity. The officers and crew stood at attention and saluted, Captain Gwinn doffed his hat and bowed as Pope Pius IX set foot on American territory, the U.S.S. Constitution, affectionately known as "Old Ironsides."
Since a commissioned ship in the Navy has the same legal status as a piece of U.S. soil, the first papal visit to the United States had begun.
Captain Gwinn escorted the pope to his cabin for refreshments. Once inside the captain's cabin, it became apparent that His Holiness had become seasick. He lay down for a while, the ship's surgeon gave him some medication and he quickly recovered. After three hours on board, the pope and his party departed to the booming of another 21-gun salute.
True to the spirit of mid-19th century American anti-Catholicism, Gwinn was threatened with court-martial by his commodore for the crime of offering hospitality to the sovereign pontiff. Gwinn died at Messina less than five weeks after the papal visit and never was tried.
The first papal traveler was the first pope-Saint Peter. Leaving the Holy Land, Peter presided over the Church in Antioch in Syria before voyaging to Rome. We do not know his itinerary, but can surmise that he traveled by land and sea and stopped in Greece and what is today Turkey before arriving in the city that would witness his martyrdom: Rome.
During the early centuries, popes often were exiled from Rome and imprisoned by the imperial authorities. During the persecution of Gallus in 253, Pope Saint Cornelius died in exile in Civitavecchia. His successor, Pope Lucius I, also died in exile, but somehow his head ended up in the Catholic cathedral in Copenhagen, Denmark. Some popes continued their travels even after death.
Although Emperor Constantine granted freedom to the Church in 312, his successors occasionally treated the popes with little respect. During the Monothelite controversy, Emperor Justinian II exiled Pope Martin I to the Crimea where he died in 654. Ironically, Justinian II was subsequently overthrown and he too died in exile in the Crimea.
Theological and political disputes often impelled popes to travel. In 1047, Pope Clement II accompanied Emperor Henry III to Germany to settle disputes over the appointment of bishops. Clement II died on his way back to Rome and, at his request, was buried in his home cathedral of Bamberg, Germany. He is the only pope buried in Germany.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the city of Rome was a cauldron of factional fighting and what can honestly be called "gang wars." When a Frenchman, Pope Clement V, was elected in 1305, he decided that Rome was unsafe and moved the papacy, curia and all, to a papal possession in the lovely Rhône valley in southern France in the city of Avignon. Thus began the "Avignon Papacy," a period during which the popes did not even live in Rome. Surrendering to the stirring and stinging words of St. Catherine of Siena, Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome in 1378. He died a few months later.
For the next few centuries the popes remained in Rome and its environs, occasionally venturing to other parts of Italy. One papal traveler of the early 16th century, Pope Julius II, known as the "Warrior Pope," clad in helmet and armor, led the papal armies against various enemies in the Italian peninsula.
Pope Pius VI, one of the longest reigning popes, also traveled, but under tragic circumstances. Seeking to persuade Austrian Emperor Joseph II to cease his anti-clerical and anti-papal programs, he went to Vienna in 1782, where he was met with unfailing courtesy while his pleas to the emperor were totally ignored. In the wake of the French Revolution, a "Roman Republic" was proclaimed in 1798 and Pius VI was taken prisoner and incarcerated first in Siena, then in Certosa. The French kidnapped him and he was held in the city of Valence. On Aug. 29, 1799, six weeks after his arrival, he died. The French buried the pope under a headstone on which was the inscription: "Citizen Braschi, former occupation-pontiff."
His successor, Pope Pius VII, was elected at a conclave held in Venice, due to the pressure of the revolutionaries in France and Italy. Since Napoleon had stolen all of the papal regalia, he was crowned with a tiara made of papiermâché. Desiring to legitimate his regime, Napoleon brought Pius VII to Paris in 1804 to assist at his coronation as Emperor of the French. He did not really need the pope, as Napoleon crowned himself. In 1809, when Pius VII refused to cede the Papal States to the French Empire, the emperor brought the pope to Paris where he imprisoned him for five years. The prison itself was rather decent-the Palace of Fontainebleau.
The Italian Risorgimento brought about the end of the Papal States. On Sept. 20, 1870, the armies of King Victor Emmanuel II invaded Rome and Pope Pius IX declared himself the "Prisoner of the Vatican." Pius IX missed his occasional train trips within the old Papal States. He had a private railway car divided into anteroom, throne room and sleeping quarters. The throne room had large windows on each side so the populace could see the enthroned pontiff as his train passed. When it stopped the windows provided a balcony from which the pope could bless assembled crowds. The car was unmistakable, painted in royal purple and decorated by Christofle of Paris with baroque winged angels, relief sculptures of the apostles and the papal crown and keys on the exterior.
No successor would leave the Vatican precincts until 1929, when the Lateran Accords with Italy created the Vatican City State. That year Pope Pius XI traveled to the nearby town of Castelgandolfo, home of the papal summer villa. In 1938, Pius XI ostentatiously left Rome for an unprecedented "May vacation" in Castelgandolfo. It was his quite deliberate snub to the state visit to Rome by Adolf Hitler.
Pope John XXIII was no stay-at-home, but did not venture far. In 1962, he left from the seldom-used Vatican rail station in the Italian government's presidential railway car on a 400-mile whistle stop journey to Loreto and Assisi to pray for the success of the Second Vatican Council. From the coach's window, he blessed huge crowds along the line. John XXIII indicated that he would have liked to travel more.
"I especially like to travel by plane," he told reporters. "You can see so much of the world in a short time. I hope it will not be another 100 years before a Pope takes this journey. I don't think it will, because I hope to travel more myself."
However, John's wish did not come to fruition. He died the next year, but his successors would achieve a degree of travel he could not have imagined. Pope Paul VI made eight overseas trips, visiting each of the Earth's continents. On Oct. 4, 1965, an Alitalia jet touched down in New York and, for the first time, a pope set foot in the continental United States.
President Lyndon Johnson flew to New York to greet him, and thousands filled Yankee Stadium to celebrate Mass with him. Many can remember his plaintive cry to the United Nations: Jamais plus la guerre! ("No more war!"), a plea that was sadly ignored.
Pope Paul arrived on Alitalia and left on TWA, for the Holy See does not have an Air Force One and must charter jets for papal travel. As Paul VI's jet took off, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, commenting on television, spoke in his inimitable style: "Tonight TWA stands for 'Travel with angels.'"
Pope John Paul II was the most peripatetic pope in all history. Modern technology made it possible for this dynamic pontiff to visit 129 nations during his reign of more than a quarter century. John Paul II visited the United States five times; seven including two stopovers in Alaska. Pope John Paul's 1979 visit opened American eyes to a new vision of the papacy-a vibrant pope at home and comfortable with the young and ready to challenge them to live up to their Christian responsibilities.
In terms of papal visits, 1995 was a year never to be forgotten in the Archdiocese of Newark. Pope John Paul II not only visited us, but also declared our cathedral to be a basilica. And no one who attended the Mass at Giants Stadium will ever forget the experience-rain and all.
Now, in 2008, we await the arrival in our neighborhood of the successor of Peter, the successor of Lucius I, Cornelius, Martin I, Clement II and Clement V, Gregory XI, Julius II, Pius VI, VII, IX, and XI, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. We welcome Benedict XVI!
(Editor's note: Msgr. Robert Wister is a professor of Church History at Immaculate Conception Seminary on the campus of Seton Hall University, South Orange.)