When his holiness was in Holywood: A look back at Pope John Paul II's 1987 visit

When his holiness was in Holywood: A look back at Pope John Paul II's 1987 visit
Franciscan sisters from San Fernando patiently wait for Pope John Paul II at 1st and Main streets in Los Angeles in 1987. (Steve Dykes / Los Angeles Times)

Pope Francis will be visiting the United States 28 years after another charismatic pope, John Paul II, came to Los Angeles and got someone excited enough to change the Hollywood sign to read, briefly, "HOLYWOOD."

What kind of city was L.A. on that first papal visit to California?


In 1987, Los Angeles still had a bit of shimmer and bounce from pulling off the Olympics three years before; the city was a fistful of years away from the riots and the Northridge earthquake that would rattle Angelenos' sense of resilience.

The Lakers were on top of the world as NBA champs, and the Raiders were scraping the bottom. Crack cocaine and AIDS were grinding their twin corrosive paths through town. Hundreds of thousands of California immigrants in the country illegally were filing their paperwork under the amnesty law that President Reagan had just signed.

John Paul was no longer quite the rock star he had been several years before. A few months before his U.S. tour, he had met with Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim, already rumored to be complicit in Nazi war crimes. Priestly sex scandals had not yet scuffed up the Catholic Church's brand in 1987; throughout his American tour, the pope's stern reiteration of traditional church dogma left some American bishops dispirited — a contrast to the present pope, who has reformed the marriage annulment process and announced that all priests, not just senior clergy, can forgive women who have had abortions.

But L.A. was ready for a good show and confident that, after the Olympics, it'd be a piece of cake to host the pope's visit — the 7.2-mile popemobile parade, the open-air Masses at the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium. Even nonbelievers were happy to get a glimpse of a man who, in this town of revolving-door celebrity, had divine lifetime tenure.

No hotel for the pontiff's two-day stay; he was put up in the rectory of St. Vibiana's Cathedral downtown. The cathedral cornerstone was laid 1869, when fewer than 10,000 people called L.A. home, and Vibiana was not a marquee saint, like New York's patron, Patrick. The early Christian woman's tomb was found in 1853 in catacombs under Rome's Appian Way and her "mortal remains" were sent off to one of the newest towns in the New World, where for decades they were, according to The Times in 1893, "exposed to public veneration" above the altar.

The church named for this obscure "virgin and martyr" stood at the head of skid row, frequented by other obscure people, who would be kept away from their usual haunt during the pope's stay. The cathedral, which is now a deconsecrated art and party space, was repainted in ivory for the pope's stay, and the altar flowers were wired perkily against the droop of September heat.

The preparations were a blockbuster two years in the making, and the buildup was tremendous. Some TV and radio stations — especially the Spanish-language stations in the biggest archdiocese in the country — promised wall-to-wall coverage of the parade, the visits with schoolchildren and Nancy Reagan and non-Christian divines, the helicopter trips to the San Fernando Mission and to the Universal Amphitheatre's "Papal Spacebridge '87," a video link with thousands of young Catholics across the country.

LAPD cops, Chief Daryl F. Gates assured the world, were absolutely ready to protect the pontiff who once supposedly used his crucifix to jimmy open the window latch of the popemobile to wave at German fans.

A potential port-a-potty crisis emerged; the Los Angeles Archdiocese, unlike those of other U.S. cities the pope visited, had not made toilet plans for parade-goers (it eventually did so). The first day of classes in the L.A. Unified School District was postponed for a day to accommodate the visit. No detail was too small to report: how much time was allotted for the pope to give Communion to 100 handpicked people (18 minutes, but he ran two minutes long), how many white doves would be released at the Coliseum Mass (500), what the pope wouldn't eat (spicy food and iced drinks).

Protesters and entrepreneurs made their presence felt too: Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, AIDS workers, atheists and the theologically oppositional. The business-minded saw profit in the Holy See, selling, among other souvenirs, headbands with halos and a papal lawn sprinkler called "Let Us Spray." The most coveted items — tickets to the papal Masses — were not for sale, at least not publicly anyway, as if heavenly wrath might be visited upon the scalpers.

Dodger Stadium was packed from the dugout to the upper decks with almost 6,000 people more than the record-setting Dodgers-Yankees World Series game of 1981. For six minutes, the popemobile rounded the bases — actually the warning track — as the crowd waved anything at hand, including the paper napkins that wrapped their Dodger dogs. The rapture ramped up even more when he sermonized in Spanish and English, and praised Catholic officials who helped the immigrants in the country illegally become citizens. Overhead, a skywriter inscribed a cross.

Because of the traffic blockades and crowds expected for the papal parade, Times reporters rented rooms in the hotel catty-corner from St. Vibiana's; I remember looking at the lights that burned late upstairs in St. Vibiana's, wondering whether the pope was having jet lag, or a late-night snack.

The parade turnout was not the million or so that had been predicted; it was about 300,000, by the Los Angeles Police Department's estimate: Catholic school kids, people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people who clambered atop bus shelters, a woman who laid out on the sidewalk for a drive-by blessing with a bottle holding her 17 gallstones — "Proof," she said, "that God healed me when I was sick."

The traffic was Olympics-light; Angelenos again kept their distance from any potential chaos. Jail bookings dropped by half. The police chief, basking in the Vatican's praise of "the most professional officers in the world," credited that to locals having "time to reflect on what life is all about and maybe some felt there was more to life than committing crime."

On Sept. 17, the pope departed aboard his jet, Shepherd One, for Northern California, to the Laguna Seca raceway for a scheduled Mass and to Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was the mayor and where the souvenirs read "Thou Makest My Day."

John Paul left behind in Los Angeles a sign that read "Hollywood" once again, millions of divine memories and a few less-than-sacred sentiments: Hundreds of Inland Empire churchgoers invited to the Coliseum Mass were left stranded when their buses failed to show up — because, one organizer alleged, other churches had bribed the bus owners to collect their parishioners instead.

Two weeks later, the Whittier earthquake gave Los Angeles a 5.9 reminder of another kind of power, the power of nature.

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