When a pope met a First Lady: 'Ah, Jacqueline!'

When people encountered Pope John XXIII for the first time, the thing they most noticed about him—apart from his physical appearance—was the sense of peace and serenity that emanated from his countenance. He was, essentially, a man who was at peace with himself and with the world around him. It would be wrong to think that he came about this serenity easily. He was naturally a happy and good-natured person—full of life and laughter—but the spiritual disciplines he had imposed on himself since his youth helped to further that serenity and peace which people found so appealing and so comforting. After all, his episcopal motto had always been Obedientia et Pax: Obedience and Peace. So it was unusual whenever the pope fretted over anything.

It just so happened that on March 11, 1962, Pope John was fussing, really fretting, over something. He was trying, in his mind, to reconcile a dilemma—while not a serious one—that caused him not a little worry. “Good Pope John”—as he was known by now—was steadily pacing around the room in the apostolic palace that was the papal library, a site that was often used for public audiences with important and special visitors.

The idea that Pope John would be upset in any way was unusual. The only other comparable time was when he found himself elected pope back on that October night in 1958.  In those early days of his papacy, he found it hard on one night to sleep. On that particular night, he was tossing and turning over some matter in his mind, an issue that had come before him since he was now the pope. He woke up, worried and restless, and thought to himself, “Very well, I shall talk this over with the pope!” He was very pleased with himself, and about to turn in again, until he realized that the man he was going to confer with, the man who was the pope, was…himself.  Recognizing that, he figured: “I’ll leave it to the Holy Spirit.” Pleased and comforted by that thought, John was able to get back to sleep. 

Another time shortly after he looked forward to a night of rest when he was walking pass the bust of a long-ago pope situated atop a pedestal. When he came to it, John took off his white zucchetto, or skullcap, and placed it on the head of his bronzed predecessor. “Here!” said Pope John as he did so, “You be pope! I’m going to bed!”

So, here he was fretting again, when Monsignor Loris Capovilla—his personal secretary—found him, pacing up a storm in the papal library. Monsignor Loris and Pope John had had an official collaboration since the time when the pope was Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice. Their work together resulted in a friendship akin to that of father and son. (Monsignor Loris would remain devoted to Pope John’s memory; he himself would be honored very late in life when Pope Francis bestowed on him the cardinal’s red hat in February 2014, at the age of 98. And as of this writing, Cardinal Loris Capovilla will celebrate his 100th birthday this October.)

So, when Monsignor Loris found Pope John in such an agitated state on that March day in 1962, he inquired as to why. It turned out on this day, the First Lady of the United States was to be received in audience by Pope John. Jacqueline Kennedy was the wife of the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic ever to assume that august office. Naturally, this meeting was to be of special importance for all concerned.

Pope John wondered how he would address the wife of the president. Pondering this problem that perplexed the pope, Monsignor Loris simply said that since the First Lady, being half-French, knew and spoke French, why not converse in that language? That reassured John, who spoke the language well from his days as papal nuncio to Paris after World War II. That solved the language problem, but something else remained: particularly, how would John address her? 

Monsignor Loris again came to the rescue. He noted that since the pope would speak French with the First Lady, he could address her as “Madame.” Or, he could simply address her the way the Americans did: “Mrs. Kennedy.”  Now, that presented another problem: which salutation would John use when meeting her? That, however, would be left up to the pope.

With all of the issues a modern pope must deal with, it seemed that the matter of how to address a president’s wife was a trivial concern, but it wasn’t. The election of John F. Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president of the United States back in 1960 was of huge importance to those who shared his Catholicism. While it was a source of pride for his co-religionists as well as for those who were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants (like the Kennedy family), JFK’s election was also a cause of some concern for those who were worried about how his presidency would affect the nature of church-state relations, which played a major (and not always a pleasant) role in the development of American history.   

Lady in Black

So, on that rainy Roman day, the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, entered Rome for an audience with the pope. If the people in Paris or Vienna were entranced with the American First Lady (as was everyone else), the people of Rome were no exception. Photographs of her were splashed all over the Sunday morning newspapers; and over 15,000 people cheered her in the rain while her official car was escorted by five Italian motorcycle police when they entered Vatican City from Rome. By the looks of things, she was as popular as any movie star, and just as mysterious and glamorous. (It was later said by the fashion conscious that the First Lady’s black attire suited her better than that worn by the assembled clergymen!)

Pope John XXIII was waiting, and so was Mrs. Kennedy, attired, as papal protocol required, in a simple black dress, with an accompanying black lace mantilla, which covered her head and shoulders. She did not wear any makeup; and her only adornment was the three-strand pearl necklace, and she carried a flat black silk purse. Pope John was present in the papal library, situated in the middle of the floor, where he could get a good look at the doors that were about to open for him.

As soon as the doors were opened, there appeared before Pope John a young woman dressed in black, who genuflected before the pope, with what was described as a “sweet-shy” expression. The pope, who had fretted so much over diplomatic niceties, suddenly relaxed and beamed a truly beatific smile. Pope John XXIII opened his arms wide, as if to embrace, and simply said: “Ah, Jacqueline!”

The meeting between pope and first lady when on for longer than was expected: 32 minutes. It was considered a record by Vatican standards, when such encounters were usually given somewhere between 15 to 20 minutes, depending who it was the pope was meeting and what was being discussed. (The next longest meeting, which was the previous May, when Pope John met with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. That meeting with the English queen clocked in at just about 26 minutes.)

Pope John and Mrs. Kennedy conversed in French, and he remarked it was a happy coincidence that he shared his name her husband and son. The pontiff also added that he thought that the name of the Kennedys’ daughter, Caroline (who was 4 years old at the time) was, as he put it: “a beautiful name.” Mrs. Kennedy, it was reported, was “emotionally moved,” as no doubt was Pope John. Together, they exchanged gifts: along with the usual assortment of medals and rosaries, Pope John also gave the First Lady two leather-bound volumes of his writings and speeches. In turn, Mrs. Kennedy gave Pope John a copy of To Turn the Tide, a book that was a collection of speeches and addresses by her husband, the president. It was personally inscribed to the pontiff by President Kennedy. And as an official memento and record of this visit, photographers took pictures of the historic meeting between pope and the first lady. There they were, looking solemn yet pleased, surrounding by Vatican prelates attired in their “best.” 

And with that, the meeting was over.

But her trip to Rome and the Vatican wasn’t completely over. She found time to visit the North American College, where seminarians from North America come to Rome to study for the priesthood. It was there that she was given an ovation by the seminarians lined up on either side of the hallway as she processed alongside her official escorts. At the college, she had a 20-minute meeting with Amleto Cardinal Cigognani, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. The Kennedys and the cardinal had a long acquaintance in Washington, back when the cardinal had been the Vatican’s apostolic delegate for 25 years.

There would not be a meeting comparable to the Pope John and Mrs. Kennedy audience until April 1985, when another young woman with a “sweet-shy” expression would entrance a Vatican assemblage. On that occasion, it would be Diana, Princess of Wales, accompanied by her husband, Prince Charles, in a 35-minute encounter, with a beaming Pope John Paul II between them. At that time, both the prince and princess gave the pope large signed photographs of themselves, along with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And the photographs from that audience showed a somewhat awkward royal couple with a pope who obviously enjoyed meeting them.

Not long after Mrs. Kennedy’s audience with Pope John, America’s editors favorably reported on the trip, noting that it “went off with gratifying grace and appropriateness on all sides. Notably absent, back home, was the chorus of complaint that might have been expected from certain quarters, professing scandal at the sight of the wife of the President of the United States forced for protocol reasons to genuflect three times before the Holy Father. The comportment of the First Lady cut the ground from under all such carping…” (While America's editors had nothing but positive things to say about Mrs. Kennedy's trip that time, they would have decidedly different views regarding the audience of President Kennedy with Pope Paul VI, which was to come the following year.) 

So, the visit went off without any problems and everyone concerned was pleased. When it was done, Mrs. Kennedy was able to put away the black dress and veil, along with happy memories—but unknown to her, in 18 more months she would have to wear them again, but this time for the funeral of the president of the United States—her husband, John F. Kennedy. And as for Pope John, he, too, would be dead, expiring the year following that audience, where he had spread wide his arms, and bid welcome to the woman in the doorway.

This is the third in a series of vignettes on the popes and the presidents. These stories are presented to offer some historical background for those interested in American and Catholic history, ahead of the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

Pope and President, Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson: 'Are There Any Catholics Here?'

Pope and President, John XXIII and Dwight D. Eisenhower: 'Era di Belli!' ('That Was a Beaut!')

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