The day Phoenix came of age - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

The day Phoenix came of age

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Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2005 9:02 am | Updated: 8:37 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Pope John Paul II went straight to his 67-year-old knees that memorable Monday morning in 1987 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

After stepping from Shepherd I, the pontiff kissed the pavement, as was his established custom during his travels across the world as the "Traveling Pope."

Never before — or since — had the Valley or Arizona made such a fuss over the visit of one dignitary. His whirlwind Valley visit, Sept. 14-15, hosted by Bishop Thomas O’Brien, then head of the Diocese of Phoenix, was far more than the arrival of Catholicism’s top leader.

It became an unofficial Valley holiday of sorts.

Many saw it as a coming of age of Phoenix on the international scene.

Gov. Evan Mecham, who was among a dozen politicians on hand for the airport arrival, greeted him with the words, "Your Holiness, I welcome you on behalf of the people of Arizona.

"We are honored by your visit. We stand with you in your efforts to improve morality in our society and for the dignity and sanctity of human life."

Weeks earlier, Mecham had blundered when a reporter asked him what he would say to the pontiff, and the governor said he didn’t know whether the pope spoke English.

He spoke eight languages fluently, including English.

The weather that late summer day was a near-perfect with a high of 90 degrees and low of 68.

It made it comfortable for thousands to line the streets of the route of the pope’s stops, although crowds fell far short of predictions.

That was attributed to fears of both Catholics and non-Catholics of large crowds and traffic tie-ups.

The Holy Father had landed in Phoenix on the fifth stop of his nine-city odyssey during his most ambitious tour of America.

Each stop — beginning on Sept. 10 in Miami, Fla., and ending Sept. 19 in Detroit — had its own emphasis.

The pope’s 24-hour visit to Phoenix and Tempe would focus on Catholic health services and American Indian ministries and heritage.

His ceremony-rich meeting with Indian leaders in a packed Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum that Monday afternoon was an event of stark contrasts — rites of the Roman Catholic Church and a showcasing of American Indian culture and tribal ritual. It was touted as a "structured dialogue" on the final day of a three-day national Tekakwitha Conference in Phoenix, attended by 16,000 Indian Catholics.

The Indians had wanted the pope to tell them that day that he would advance the canonization process for the Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha, who had died 300 years before, but he made no such commitment.

It was his second trip to the United States, the first occurring in 1979, and his 36th trip from the Vatican since being elected pope in 1978.

In his historic Valley visit, the Popemobile, with its bulletproof glass, carried the pontiff to six primary appearances. Along the route, he waved incessantly to crowds, standing in the vehicle, one hand holding a bar to steady him, the other sweeping back and forth or making the sign of the cross.

At his first stop, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, he held and gently kissed a baby born prematurely.

The general public was told the best opportunity to see and hear the pope speak was in Phoenix Civic Plaza in midmorning when the pontiff delivered remarks from the outdoor balcony above the main entrance of St. Mary’s Basilica.

From behind bulletproof glass and before a crowd estimated at 100,000, the pope did not deviate from his prepared text.

"Every human life is sacred because every human person is sacred," he said. "It is in the light of this fundamental truth that the church constantly proclaims and defends the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death."

He spoke of "the great evil of abortion and euthanasia." He also shared his message in Spanish.

Moments later, the pontiff moved across the street to the Civic Plaza convention center and spoke to 2,400 Catholic health professionals from across the country.

The culmination of the pontiff’s visit was celebrating Mass at Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.

The late syndicated humor columnist and author Erma Bombeck, then a Paradise Valley resident, was given the assignment of introducing John Paul II to the packed stadium and satellite audiences around the world.

The stadium itself became a controversy because of the unholy "devil" words and Sparky, the Sun Devil mascot, seen here and there.

Like censors putting fig leaves on nudes in art, the sensitive areas were covered in Sun Devil Stadium for the Mass.

The Mass itself was a mix of solemnity and boisterous celebration, capped by the pope, again riding in the Popemobile, circling the stadium waving to the applauding crowd.

As the pope’s plane departed Sky Harbor about 8:51 a.m. Sept. 16, the overall visit coordinator, Monsignor John McMahon noted, "I don’t think we would have been able to write a script that would have been more pleasing."

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