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AT THE CATHEDRAL: Before celebrating Mass on Boston Common the day of his arrival in Boston, the pope led a prayer service in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. (Globe Staff File Photo / Ulrike Welsch) More photos
AT THE CATHEDRAL: Before celebrating Mass on Boston Common the day of his arrival in Boston, the pope led a prayer service in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. (Globe Staff File Photo / Ulrike Welsch)
More photos

In Boston, America first greeted John Paul

For those who braved crowds and a heavy autumn downpour, it remains a shimmering moment in time, a bright memory of a historic event. The Oct. 1, 1979, visit to Boston of Pope John Paul II occurred less than a year into his pontificate and at the height of his popularity. The Holy Father to New England's large Catholic community received a tumultuous welcome.

HISTORIC GREETING: Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, archbishop of Boston, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter greeted Pope John Paul II at the start of his first US visit at Logan Airport Oct. 1, 1979. The pope declared later on Boston Common: ''I greet you, America the Beautiful.'' (Globe Staff File Photo / David L. Ryan)     More photos of the pope's trip to Boston
    James M. Pellegrini remembers vividly the Mass on Boston Common, the crowd estimated at more than 400,000, and the soaking rain that could not douse the excitement of the first and only papal visit to the city.

Then an 18-year-old student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Pellegrini sat on the enormous stage with 62 cardinals and bishops, waiting to participate as youth lector and offer the prayerful intentions midway through what would be a two-hour Mass. Seated just beyond the roof's edge, he was drenched by steady runoff. The Secret Service was everywhere, even on stage, behind the pillars. The crowd was enormous, beyond a nervous young man's imagination.

''When the audience got a glimpse of the pope, there was just an eruption of noise, a scream all at once,'' recalled Pellegrini, now a physician, father of three, and resident of West Boylston. ''The crowd lit up with flashes; cameras were going off at once, illuminating the whole Common. I've never seen or heard anything like it, and I probably never will again. It was like a rock concert, magnified by a factor of 10.''

The papal liturgy was the highlight of the pontiff's Boston visit, his first stop on a seven-day, six-city US tour, following a three-day pilgrimage to Ireland. It was a remarkable event in the city's history. Not only was Boston host to the leader of Roman Catholicism, the city welcomed the entire church hierarchy of the United States and Canada, 200 leaders of Orthodox and Protestant denominations, and Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter, who offered the nation's greetings after the pope landed at Logan International Airport and kissed American soil at 3:02 p.m.

The security and logistical planning were extraordinary. From Logan, the papal motorcade drove through Boston neighborhoods on streets often lined several deep with spectators and signs, first to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, where 2,000 priests at-tended a prayer service; then to the Common; and finally to the archdiocesan chancery in Brighton, where the pontiff dined and spent the night at the stately granite residence of Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros.

His 18-hour stay ended early the next morning, when he left for New York and an address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Visitors from as far away as California came to Boston to witness the spectacle of the first visit to the city by a sitting pope. Before his selection as pope, Karol Wojtyla, then a Polish cardinal, had visited Boston in 1969 and 1976.

Rev. Bernard P. McLaughlin, who was Catholic chaplain at Logan Airport at the time, coordinated the reception. He recalls the event in detail.

Hundreds of clergy and dignitaries, including political leaders, gathered on the tarmac, awaiting the arrival of St. Patrick, the flagship of the Aer Lingus fleet, after a six-hour flight from Ireland.

ON THE STREETS: The pope's motorcade of limousines took him through the streets of Boston's North End, heading to Boston Common for a public Mass.
(Globe Staff File Photo / Wendy Maeda)
More photos of the pope's trip to Boston
    ''It was almost eerie as the plane came through the drizzle and the fog,'' recalled McLaughlin, now pastor of St. Gerard Majella Church in Canton. ''The Secret Service had told me beforehand, 'You've got to be sure you're controlling these people.' On one side, you had senators, governors, and congressmen. On the other, all the cardinals and bishops. As soon as the pope came out of the plane — it was one of those almost charismatic moments — all these people, Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy and the rest, began surging toward him.

''The only other time I was affected like that was when Mother Teresa visited and people came running out to touch her,'' said Father McLaughlin, who celebrated Mass with the pope on two subsequent visits to the Vatican.

In his brief remarks at the airport, the pontiff greeted all Americans ''as one who wishes you to fulfill completely your noble destiny of service to the world.''

From Logan the motorcade of limousines emerged from the Sumner Tunnel to a huge throng on Hanover Street in the North End. People hung from street signs, and tossed confetti from windows, fire escapes, and rooftops, hailing ''Il Papa.'' It was the first leg of a 55-minute odyssey through the city's neighborhoods, each of which welcomed the pope in its own fashion.

On Columbia Road in Dorchester, shouts of ''Sto Lat Niech Zyje'' (''May you live 100 years'') welcomed the first Polish-born pontiff. ''Bienvenido Papa Juan Pablo,'' cried Latinos in Uphams Corner. In the South End, a sign featured greetings in seven languages — Greek, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and English.

At the cathedral the pope was greeted by nearly 2,000 priests and a small number of lay persons. They ''responded with a cheering, feet-stomping welcome that shook to its rafters the century-old cathedral ... a warm, sometimes boyish enthusiasm bordering on delirium,'' wrote a Globe reporter in attendance. During the 38-minute prayer service, John Paul praised Boston as ''a community where people of all backgrounds, creeds, races, and convictions have provided workable solutions to problems and have created a home where all people can be respected in their human dignity.''

Outside the cathedral, there was a strong reminder of the city's strained race relations, five years into court-ordered school desegregation. A group of about 1,800 black demonstrators protested the shooting, three days earlier, of Darryl Williams, a black high school football player, shot in the neck from a nearby rooftop during a game in overwhelmingly white Charlestown. ''Stop the racists' attacks,'' protesters' signs said. Two white teenagers eventually pleaded guilty to the shooting, which left Williams paralyzed from the neck down, and were sentenced to prison. They maintained it was an accident.

During Mass that began at 5:46 on the Common, a prayer for ''the complete recovery'' of Williams was offered during the intercessions of young James Pellegrini. ''It was a last-minute addition by Cardinal Medeiros him-self,'' Pellegrini recalled. ''He felt it was important to help quell the unrest in the city at that time.''

In his 37-minute homily to a sea of soaked worshipers and spectators, the pope appealed directly to young American Catholics, urging them ''to follow me and to follow Christ.'' He exhorted them to avoid the escapism of drugs, sexual pleasure, violence, and cynicism and to ''reveal the true meaning of life where hatred, neglect, or selfishness threaten to take over the world.'' Embrace ''the option of love,'' taught by Jesus Christ, he urged them.

The pontiff then gave Communion to a multiethnic group of 160 individuals, mostly children, ''a miniature of the universal church,'' as it was called. A group of 300 priests served Communion to the rest of the crowd.

At 7:38 the pontiff gave his final blessing in Latin, the Mass ended, and he left for the cardinal's home.

Looking back on his moment in local history, Pellegrini searched for a word to describe the event.

''Electrifying,'' he said. ''It's a weak word, but it's the best one I can come up with.''

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