The 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Los Angeles offered many memorable moments — not the least of which took place at Immaculate Conception School, in downtown Los Angeles next to the former Chancery office.
And then-first lady Nancy Reagan, the former film actress, played a leading role.
“We were very privileged to have the pope in Los Angeles for 48 hours,” Cardinal Roger Mahony recalled this week, following the death of Mrs. Reagan on March 6. “And we were blessed to have Mrs. Reagan, representing her husband, for the visit at Immaculate Conception.”
Shortly after 3 p.m. on that Wednesday, Sept. 16, Mrs. Reagan preceded the Holy Father and Archbishop Mahony as they entered the classroom filled with 21 excited students, representing sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes, who stood up to greet their distinguished visitors.
She then took a seat beside the pope, and introduced him as someone who had “great and serious things on his mind.”
Pope John Paul spoke on the value of Catholic schools in the life of the Church and advised the students to be respectful of and cooperative with their teachers, smiling at first-year principal Mary Ann Murphy. He then invited Mrs. Reagan to say a few words, and she spoke on how important it was for children and young people to avoid all types of drugs and narcotics, using words and terms understandable to the children.
And then, briefly, the visit became less understandable, when the pope said to the students: “Do any of you have any demands that you would like to ask?”
“There was an awkward silence from the children, since they did not understand what he meant,” Cardinal Mahony recalled. “At that point, Mrs. Reagan chimed in and said that these young children were too nice to make any ‘demands’ of the pope!”
And soon, the archbishop realized the cause of the mix-up: The Italian word for question is “domanda.”
“The pope, although his English was quite good, simply spoke an English word that was close to ‘domanda,’” said Cardinal Mahony. “I told the children, ‘The pope is asking if you have any questions.’ Well, yes, they had prepared several, and their shyness disappeared.”
The 40-minute visit passed quickly, too quickly for many, notably 14-year-old eighth-grader Lorena Vega who burst into tears outside the classroom as Pope John Paul bid farewell to the student body. Seeing her tears, the pope came over and hugged her, and she embraced him in a tight embrace that, an Associated Press reporter noted, lasted 15 seconds before she let go so the pope and the archbishop could get to Dodger Stadium for Mass.
As first lady, Mrs. Reagan — clearly as touched as anyone else by Lorena’s hug — had, like her husband, “a great affinity” for the Catholic Church, and was an up-close witness to President Reagan’s “unique and very special friendship” with the Holy Father, with whom he worked behind the scenes to free the people of East Europe from Communist rule.
“Mrs. Reagan was a kind and gracious lady,” Cardinal Mahony said. “And it was a privilege and pleasure to have her join us at Immaculate Conception that day.”