The news coverage of the visit of Pope Benedict reminds me of the October 6, 1979 White House Visit of Pope John Paul as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. I was invited to attend the ceremony on the White House lawn. My son John was with me.

It was magnificence fall day. The blue sky was laced with brilliant white clouds. There was the excitement of being at the White House on an historic occasion. A very gentle breeze was filled with the scent of the flowers and vegetation in the Garden. It was a gathering of very prominent Washington and foreign leaders. We guests were seated facing the White House in folding chairs. It formed a square. We looked up to a podium with two microphones. John and I chose to sit at the back in the very last row. From here we could take pictures without disturbing others. Vernon Jordan President of the Urban League sat in front of us. I remember him well. He is a huge man. It was difficult to photograph over his head. He was in one of my shots. There as a particular magic to the event because Leonine Price’s marvelous voice just sent electricity through the whole gathering.

President Carter welcomed the Pope. The Pope then joined the President in calling for nuclear disarmament and increased aid to the Third World. There was a famous photo taken when the breeze blew the Popes cape and the President reached over to straitens it.

When the formal session ended the two of them decided to “work the crowd”. They started side by side down the left side of the guest’s chairs walking straight towards a huge stand filled with hundreds of TV and Still camera people. The pair moved slowly and shook many hands. At the end of the row to our surprise and delight they turned left and started up the back where John and I we were standing.

As they moved along Pope John Paul was closest with President Carter at his side on his right. They were a couple of feet away. I was planning to shake the Pope’s hand. In an instant a very frail and agitated woman shouting in a foreign language burst between John and me. In the European tradition of the blessing from kissing the Pope’s ring she grabbed and kissed the Pope’s ring on his left hand. She clung to his hand and fell the ground literally across my feet. The Pope then bent and took the woman’s right hand as he reached down to help her to her feet. At this instant President Carter reached down to gather her left hand. . I was half facing the pair. I also reached down and took both her hands to help her up. All our hands touched.

For that instant I was holding the hands of Pope John Paul and President Jimmy Carter. She was on her feet quickly and on her way. That instant was absolutely unique. It is almost certain that no American has ever before at the same time held the hands of the U.S. President and the Pope and certainly not on the White House lawn.

This incident was in contradiction of my profound belief in the separation of church and state. However I was so impressed that I vowed not to wash my hands for the rest of the day.

Bernard F. Hillenbrand

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