Sneed: Looking back on another pope’s visit

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Pope John Paul II. |Sun-Times Library

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The papal visit: Redux


The coverage of Argentinian Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States this week gave Sneed a flashback case of agita.

It was a flashback from hell.

It was 1979. I had recently left my 13-year career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune to become Mayor Jane Byrne’s press secretary, and it involved my first encounter with the press on the other side of the pencil.

I ran afoul of the numbers game.

I got it wrong.

Placed in charge of the October visit of Polish Pope John Paul II — the first pontiff to visit Chicago — it was my first big mayoral assignment.

With 2.4 million Catholics, the Chicago Archdiocese was among the largest in the country, and the city was home to hundreds of thousands of Polish immigrants.

The man known as John Paul Two, the head of my church, was about to conduct the largest Mass ever held in the city of Chicago —and causing a logistical nightmare. I couldn’t wait for him to get out of town!

To be honest, I wasn’t the one who did all the hard lifting for the papal visit; I hadn’t even orchestrated creation of the fussy white and gold embossed file I carried around detailing pope plans — which was passed out to the press.

Little did I know I was to become sharkbait.

Toss a little blood in the water — especially a former reporter’s juju — and the press was all over it.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was wrong and the press was right.

Back then, the city relied on crowd statistics tabulated and provided by the Chicago Police Department.


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So, historically, did the press.

So I cavalierly used Chicago Police crowd statistics to estimate the throng attending the pope’s Mass at Grant Park.


I was accused of intentionally releasing phony crowd statistics.

It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t know they were phony.

But I was incorrect.

Police estimated the crowd at 1 million.

The Chicago Tribune tabulated it at around 300,000.


Actually, it was my old reporter pal, Bill Currie, a Vietnam War vet, who had slammed me with a grid.

If I remember correctly, Currie suggested my crowd statistic be challenged by using a type of Vietnam War grid to calculate the density of crowds to establish the actual throng flooding to Grant Park.

“Wrong, Sneed,” I remember him chirping. “No way were that many people there!”

Here’s another piece of tattered papal history:

Pope John Paul II’s visit was prefaced by the arrival in Chicago of a Cicero native, the longtime head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus.

The selection and ascension of Pope Francis was based, in part, on a church desperately in need of change and reform — especially following a financial scandal at the Vatican bank.

Marcinkus, who lived in Rome, served at the bank for more than 20 years — weathering a scandal that saw him indicted following the collapse of an Italian bank with close ties to the Vatican. He was never tried.

His visit to Byrne’s City Hall office previous to the pope’s visit was memorable.

Dressed to the nines, exuding power as a prince of the church, Marcinkus’ presence seemed to suck all the air out of the room. His arrogant retinue made demands, rather than requests, to a Catholic Byrne and her predominately Catholic office staff — who later chuckled at the papal pomp and persistence.

Jane would not be bullied. It was noted she hadn’t tossed her infamous bottle of pink nail polish on her office desk at them.

Although a serene Pope John Paul II’s visit was a success, it was hard not to be offended by Marcinkus and his crew. I didn’t ask for a papal blessing or a private moment. Quite honestly, I couldn’t wait for the pope to leave town.

I am now the victim of the Francis effect, a Roman Catholic smitten by this Argentinian Jesuit who has not forgotten who he is.

Who is that?

As Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once told Sneed: “First and foremost, a priest.”

Sneedlings . . .

Thursday’s birthdays: Nia Vardalos, 53; Robert Irvine, 50, and Kevin Sorbo, 57.

Follow Sneed on Twitter: @Sneedlings

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