I’ve now had two first encounters with popes at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The first time was a whole lot less complicated.
In October 1979 I was a college student, working for the semester as a press intern in the Senate. My mom’s cousin Mary was a nurse stationed at Andrews; she invited me to go see Pope John Paul II arrive.
In 2008, my application for a press credential allowing me at the event had to be submitted weeks in advance.
In 1979, about an hour or so before the plane landed, we drove up to the main gate at Andrews, and Mary showed her ID. The guard saluted and we drove to the landing strip, parking nearby.
This time, along with a couple hundred other reporters and photographers, I had to be at a downtown Washington hotel five-and-a-half hours before Pope Benedict XVI’s plane landed. After going through metal detectors, having our belongings sniffed for explosives by dogs and hand-inspected by Secret Service employees, we were bused to Andrews, arriving about four hours before the pope did. For much of that time, were confined to a bank of bleachers and a platform separate from where about 1,000 guests, also confined to their seats, waited.
In 1979, when the jet carrying Pope John Paul landed, Vice President Walter Mondale and assorted church and government officials were there to greet him. As soon as the official hand-shaking was over, the pope came over to where a couple hundred people — all with some connection to the base — were standing patiently behind temporary barricades.
Like a small-town mayoral candidate, Pope John Paul worked the line, shaking hands, blessing babies, touching children on their heads. My chance to get a papal handshake was thwarted by the pre-emptive appearance of a cute baby between the pope’s line of sight and where Mary and waited.
In 2008, Pope Benedict was greeted by President George W. Bush and a similar assortment of church and government representatives. Pope Benedict waved and smiled at the cheering welcoming committee, but never ventured near the public, though everyone within the airport area had been thoroughly screened.
Since 1979, there have been assassination attempts on Pope John Paul and U.S. presidents. Terrorist attacks on Washington and New York have added to a level of security that was unthinkable 29 years ago.
And that has significantly added to the complications in meeting the pope at the airport.