The solemn handshake between JFK and Pope Paul VI

A Solemn Handshake Between Pope and President, Paul VI and John F. Kennedy, July 2, 1963

When Air Force One landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport (officially known as Fiumicino-Leonardo da Vinci International Airport) on July 1, 1963, there was just a smattering of people to welcome its most famous passenger, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The welcome for the Leader of the Free World was rather subdued because of the recent emotional event which had shaken the country—and much of the (religious) world—within the previous weeks; Rome and all of Italy was still mourning the death of the beloved “Good Pope John,” Pope John XXIII, who had died of stomach cancer back on June 3 at the age of 81.

Because of the death and funeral of Pope John and the recent ceremonies for the coronation of the new pontiff, Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini of Milan—now Pope Paul VI—President Kennedy offered to cancel the trip to Italy altogether. The Italian government had looked forward to welcoming President Kennedy; they insisted that he come. They were as eager for his visit as those in the other European capitals were; so that part of the official schedule was kept.

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Originally, President Kennedy had planned just to visit West Germany in an effort to bolster that country’s allegiance to the West and to the NATO alliance. As often happens with the planning of presidential foreign trips, concerns and objections were raised about the itinerary; other allies needed to be recognized and encouraged. Before long, other nations were added, turning what was supposed to be simple excursion to a NATO ally into a full-blown presidential junket: in addition to West Germany, Italy was added, then Britain, and then Ireland.

If there were worries about how the first Catholic president of the United States would handle a delicate matter of an audience with the pope, it provided fodder for journalists covering that leg of the trip. Would JFK adhere to traditional practice, whereby Catholics, when presented to the pope, kneel, grasp the pope’s right hand, and kiss the papal ring, which is the physical symbol of the Petrine office? Even JFK—ever the political realist—acknowledged the conundrum that faced him. Remembering the religious opposition to his presidential candidacy back in 1960—because of his Catholicism—he remarked: “Norman Vincent Peale would love that…. And it would get me a lot of votes in South Carolina.” No doubt, he also remembered how New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, in the waning days of that campaign, spent the Sunday before the election riding in an open car along Fifth Avenue with the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon (an act which especially earned the ire of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had given many—and large—donations to various Catholic charities and philanthropies through the years). The “religious issue” was still a contentious one for JFK, even into almost three years of his presidency.

Just because JFK had been the first Catholic elected president of the United States (and by a razor-thin margin at that), it did not mean that anti-Catholicism or anti-Catholic sentiment had disappeared after Al Smith’s disastrous loss to Herbert Hoover in 1928. On the contrary: the president’s father kept among his papers a vicious cartoon that had been published in a Baptist periodical during the 1960 campaign. Under the caption “Big John and Little John,” it showed Pope John XXIII sitting on his throne with his hand on John F. Kennedy’s head, bidding him to “be sure to do what Poppa tells you.” And there was another one, showing Pope John, with suitcases and trunks at the ready, prepared to move into the White House. When he learned about that particular cartoon, Pope John—with a wink and a laugh—remarked to a visiting American that he “could never rule a country with a language as difficult as yours.”

Papal Protocol

President Kennedy decided to call upon his old friend, the archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, for some sage advice about the Vatican aspect of the trip. The cardinal told the president to stay away from Rome until all ceremonies for the new pope were concluded: “It’s the biggest day of the man’s life and you don’t want to take the play away from him.” As Pope Paul’s coronation was to take place on the Sunday President Kennedy’s plane was due to land in Italy, it was decided Air Force Once would be diverted to Milan and the Lake Como region for a brief respite before going on to Rome the following day, a Monday (July 2), for the official events. On the day the presidential party landed in Rome, JFK first met with Italian governmental officials and paid his respects at Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He even got to sample the infamous Roman traffic. One humorous aspect of the presidential motorcade that day in Rome (which, like all of his rides, were in an convertible limousine): Roman women, eager for their chance to see the American president, ran right out into the streets from the beauty parlor, towels on their shoulders and curlers in their hair, hoping to get close enough to touch his car—or, more likely, himself. The “Kennedy jumpers” from primary campaign days even found their equivalent in Rome, too.

The new pope was eager to meet the American president, as well, for he had personally been acquainted with members of the Kennedy family, going back to 1939, when, as a member of the Vatican Secretariat of State, he had met them when they attended the coronation of Pope Pius XII in 1939. At that time, Joseph P. Kennedy was FDR’s ambassador to Great Britain, and was regarded as a prominent American Catholic.

As for Paul, in addition to having had a career in Vatican administration, he had also been archbishop of Milan, a position that gave him some valuable pastoral experience. For some reason, he was never made a cardinal while there, as was customary when a prelate assumed responsibility of a major see. It was speculated that Pius XII—who was his mentor—on the “advice” on certain counselors declined to make him a cardinal. It took his friend from the neighboring diocese, Cardinal Roncalli, to elevate Montini to the Sacred College once he became Pope John XXIII.

Before their respective papacies, Roncalli and Montini, in addition to being churchmen, were also friends of similar mindsets. However, they were not the same in dispositions; while Roncalli was open, friendly and expansive, Montini was shy, reserved and somewhat cautious, leading Cardinal Roncalli to remark that there was something of a “Hamleto” about his friend. (Before he died, Pope John showed his regard for his friend and fellow churchman; he let it be known—in so many words—that he favored his friend to be his successor.)

A Delicate Encounter

Fate intervened; it was to be Pope Paul, and not Pope John, who was to meet with President Kennedy in a historic audience. Thus the moment came, amid the crush of photographers and members of the press: the pope and president shook hands. Obviously pleased and delighted, Paul VI, the new pope, resplendent in his red mozzetta and stole, offered his hand to the president of the United States, dressed in an everyday blue business suit and tie. President John F. Kennedy, realizing the import of this moment, gave a slight nod of his head in the pontiff’s direction and they both shook hands, solemnly. Both men knew how important this was officially; they both knew how special this was emotionally. They both knew how much the late Pope John wanted to meet the American president, especially after having met in audience the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, only just the year before. (The audience was conducted in English; since Pope Paul VI was fluent in the language, no interpreter was necessary; accompanying the president at this audience were his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the chief of protocol Angier Biddle Duke, presidential speechwriter and aide Theodore Sorensen, press secretary Pierre Salinger and the two members of JFK's "Irish mafia," David F. Powers and Kenneth P. O'Donnell.)

Incidentally, the informal, low-key and unofficial nature of this audience between JFK and Pope Paul brought some criticism from America’s editors at the time, when it was publicly announced as being “private” and not an official state visit with all of the paraphernalia that such an event entailed. In an editorial afterwards, the belief was put forth that it was nothing short of disgraceful that the head of the most powerful nation on earth would behave—and be received—in such an understated manner. Little did the editors—or anyone else know or realize—that perhaps the pragmatist president and the diplomatic pope might have wanted it that way.

After President Kennedy had met with Pope Paul VI and solemnly shook hands with him, he then went to visit the North American College, where selected seminarians from various dioceses throughout the United States lived while studying for the priesthood. It was there that JFK met Cardinal Cushing, his fellow Bostonian and accomplice in all things Boston-Irish. Given their long-standing friendship, only Cardinal Cushing could get away with what he did when he met the President of the United States, once he saw him: he gave his friend, the president, a bear hug and a friendly left jab and right hook to the ribs. And in his usual gruff and cheerful style, Cardinal Cushing—who happened to be the only American cardinal left in Rome following the ceremonies for Pope Paul’s coronation—met him with a sunny, “Hiya, Jack!” and remarked that he, Cardinal Cushing, was the “only true Democrat” who remained to greet him, while the “rest of them were all Republicans!” But then, the moment became serious.

In a quiet manner, the cardinal spoke to the president: “Jack, too bad you couldn’t get here before Pope John died. You two would have hit it off fine.” He remarked that Pope John had long awaited his chance to meet with President Kennedy, and had planned to eagerly present him with a gift: a signed copy of his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which the President was known to have admired and which had dovetailed with his own address, A Strategy of Peace, which he had delivered at commencement exercises at American University in Washington, D.C., earlier that June. “And here it is,” said the cardinal, “one of the only three signed copies in existence.” The president became subdued, and studied the document for a few moments.

When he spoke again, JFK told Cardinal Cushing that in his audience with Pope Paul, the pope had presented him with a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicted the Blessed Mother Mary cradling the body of Jesus, her crucified Son. “I know he did,” said Cardinal Cushing. “I was the one who told him to give it to you”. The visit between two Boston friends concluded; then it was on to the last leg of his Italian trip for JFK—to NATO headquarters in Naples—before boarding Air Force One for the flight home to Washington and then on to Hyannis Port and Cape Cod for the Fourth of July.

A Missing Memory

That June and July of 1963 turned out to be a most memorable trip for the president, more than he ever could have imagined; it would be one that he would talk about incessantly for the remainder of that summer, recalling the places he had seen and the people he had met, from Paris and General Charles DeGaulle, to his talks in London with Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, to meeting with Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of West Germany, to the raucous “homecoming” in Ireland with President Eamon De Valera and Taoiseach Sean Lemass.

Most particularly, John F. Kennedy would always have the bittersweet memory of that pope he did not get to see—John XXIII—and he would remember the history he had made when he solemnly shook hands with his successor, Paul VI. And in barely a little more than another half-year, JFK, too, would become a memory, like the late pope, who was revered in life as “Good Pope John.”

As for Paul VI, when that tragic November day came, he would allow the members of the press to enter the papal apartments to record him speaking—in English—of his sorrow at “so dastardly a crime” that befell the American people and the world. The pontiff would offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the Vatican for the repose of the soul of the president of the United States, with Italian President Segni in attendance. The president of Italy was bundled in a winter coat and wreathed in sorrow, for he was suffering from the flu, unable to go to Washington to attend the funeral of the American president he had happily met on that June day.

The visit that was much anticipated between pope and president in June 1963 would soon recede into history, given the onward march of subsequent events. But it was a handshake long in coming, given the historical and religious divide that long existed between this church and this state; and though in some ways it was symbolic, the handshake was also a concrete gesture before the world, in recognition that being an American and a Catholic weren’t mutually exclusive, but complementary to American history, life and culture. Anti-Catholicism has never died, but it did recede somewhat, in time; Catholicism subsequently—for the most part—became accepted as being a part of American life, which in truth, it had always been, even since the nation’s founding days.

Such was the story behind the bittersweet memory of one pope and the solemn handshake between the successor pope and the only Catholic who was president of the United States.

This is the fourth 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.

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