As With Dalai Lama Today, Pope's Visit To New Orleans 25 Years Ago Came Amid Violence

May 16, 2013

On Friday, the Dalai Lama will be giving the first of two public talks at the New Orleans theatre in the Convention Center. For many, the Dalai Lama’s visit is reminiscent of the last major religious leader to pass through New Orleans 25 years ago.

When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987 it was described as the Super Bowl of all Super Bowls.

25 years later, Archbishop Gregory Aymond remembers it well.

“It was a very powerful event,” says Aymond. “At the time I was rector president of Notre Dame Seminary, so literally lived next door to where he was residing. And of course we often look back and think about the mass that took place near the University of New Orleans because it started, terrible rain and storms, so we talk about the thousands upon thousands upon ten thousands of people who gathered there and got all wet. I had the opportunity to serve as one of the masters of ceremony for that, and of course at that time too it was the younger and more enthusiastic John Paul.”

In 1987, New Orleans was struggling with over 10% unemployment and had the second highest homicide rate among major cities in the U.S. Throughout his 3-day visit, Pope John Paul II energetically preached a message that hit home for many: hope and unity among the faithful. He brought this message of peace and harmony to the city’s Catholic community when he addressed a crowd of African American church leaders at the Superdome.

“There is no black church, no white church, no American church,” the Pope said at the time. “But there is, and must be, in the one church of Jesus Christ, a home for blacks, whites, Americans, every culture and race.”

Although of different faiths, Archbishop Aymond sees parallels between Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. Both leaders struggled with repressive Communist regimes in their home countries, spoke openly against global violence and shared a strong belief in interfaith dialogue. As Pope, John Paul II often reached out across religious lines, becoming the first Pope in recorded history to visit a mosque and synagogue. Throughout his papacy he met with the Dalai Lama over 8 times.

“Both John Paul II and Dalai Lama are world leaders of faith,” says Aymond. “I think both of them are very prophetic voices who are able to read the signs of the time to interpret them in a spirit of humility and simplicity, and to call people to unity and peace. And as we look back, not even in our own time, the human race has had a hard time, unfortunately, working toward that unity and peace to which God calls us.”

The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, has scheduled two public talks while in New Orleans. One will be on “Strength Through Compassion”; the other on “Strength Through Connection”. In light of the Mother’s Day shooting, Archbishop Aymond hopes his message will reach the community.

“I’ve heard him speak before, when I was assigned as the Bishop in Texas, and he really is a captivating speaker,” says Aymond. “His message is a message we all need to hear, whatever religion we belong to. He certainly has been a loud and strong and bold voice in calling us to work toward peace and reconciliation. Certainly in our city, with the murder and violence and racism that exists, we have a special need, as do many large cities in the United States, a special need to hear his message.”

This news content made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.