Moved by the Pope: Recalling John Paul IIís 1987 Visit to USC
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
South Carolina has never had much of a Catholic presence — nor, for that matter, has the state’s flagship university — but 25 years ago today, for a brief but memorable moment, the University of South Carolina might as well have been the Vatican.
On Sept. 11, 1987, after months of negotiations and planning, as well as a thorough security sweep of certain campus buildings by the U.S. Secret Service, one of the most enduring religious figures of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II, visited Columbia and USC as part of a nine-city U.S. tour that also included stops in more heavily Catholic cities such as New Orleans and Miami.
Just 70,000, or 2.1 percent, of South Carolina’s 3.35 million residents in 1987 identified as Catholic, making the Palmetto State the least-Catholic state in the U.S. at the time—and perhaps accounting for the low turnout along the pope’s travel route. As the Los Angeles Times reported two days later, “No crowds, but small knots of people, stood by as the Popemobile carried the pontiff slowly through downtown Columbia.”
The scene was different on the USC campus, as an estimated 13,000 students, faculty and staff braved temperatures in the mid-90s for a glimpse of the visiting pope, whose role in the imminent collapse of communism in Europe had already made him a hero in his native Poland and a recognizable pop culture figure worldwide, even among non-Catholics.
Following a lap of the Horseshoe in his customized Mercedes-Benz Popemobile, the predominantly non-Catholic audience — some donning homemade pope hats, others wearing T-shirts that read “I Was Moved by the Pope” (a witty reference to the precautionary closure of all dorms on the Horseshoe)—greeted the leader of the Roman Catholic church with chants of “John Paul II, we love you!”
The pope’s response, which now graces a plaque outside the President’s House near the Horseshoe’s southeast corner, drew loud cheers.
"It is wonderful to be young," the pope told the students from the end of a long wooden pier built for the occasion outside the President’s House. "It is wonderful to be young and to be a student. It is wonderful to be young and to be a student at the University of South Carolina."
"It was kind of magical when they brought him around in the Popemobile, and then he comes out and raises his hands and starts to speak," recalls USC Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Pruitt. "It was almost like a coach going into a pep rally and saying, 'Nobody’s better than you students, and no place is better than the University of South Carolina.' He could have not said anything else, just turned around and walked off. He had already in a lot of ways made his impression.”
According to a contemporaneous report in The Gamecock, the Pope emphasized “the wonderful world of knowledge and the immense challenge of truth” facing the USC students, then added a general call to service, saying, “Here in this center of higher education, you must prepare yourselves to make your own contribution to society.”
Current Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, then only a few weeks into his freshman year at USC, was part of the target audience. Looking back, Benjamin refers to John Paul II as “one of the most awe-inspiring and powerful men in the world” and remembers being "blown away" by what he describes as a transformative event.
"I still can’t comprehend the string of unlikely coincidences that had to occur to make that moment possible, but I know it changed my life," says Benjamin. "I started volunteering with a number of community organizations the very next day and went from being a typical restless teenager to a focused and dedicated future public servant in a matter of weeks."
In a matter of a few years, Benjamin would also go on to become student body president.
Columbia attorney and USC alum Michael Hogue, who was Carolina’s student body president at the time of the papal visit, was also on hand and was asked to present the Pope with one of several gifts, a handmade dulcimer and carrying case. Hogue also remembers the event fondly, calling it “a special day,” but points out that not everyone came out of piety or devotion.
“It was a big event for the students for a lot of different reasons, one of which was the event itself and people being interested in that,” Hogue explains. “And for a lot of Catholic students as well, this was a major event, to have the Pope come. But there was also, you know, classes were cancelled that day. We had a lot of people enjoying themselves.”
Regardless of their reasons for being there, the pope himself may have been as moved by the event as any student, according to Monsignor Charles Rowland, who was vicar general in the diocese of Charleston under Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler at the time. Following a closed-door meeting with leaders from 27 different religions at the USC President’s House, Rowland and Unterkoefler were part of the entourage that followed the Popemobile from the Horseshoe to Williams-Brice Stadium, where the pontiff addressed a crowd of approximately 60,000 people at a “Service of Christian Witness.”
Two years later, Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler fell ill and couldn’t travel to Rome for a scheduled meeting with the Pope. Rowland went in the bishop’s stead.
“At the pope’s lunch table there were many bishops and archbishops and myself, about 12 of us, and I was the only non-Bishop,” Rowland fondly recalls. “And everyone was talking about their own dioceses and archdioceses and then all of a sudden the pope looked at me and brought up, “But! The Horseshoe! The young people! The Horseshoe! The young people!’”
“He was deeply impressed with the reception that he got at the Horseshoe, with the young people all on the lawn. He thought that was magnificent.”
The pope’s 1987 USC visit capped an “ecumenical year” that also brought several other key religious figures to campus, including Russian Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, James Crumley of the Lutheran Church of America, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and Billy Graham.
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