Pope Francis is the 266th head of the Roman Catholic Church, but his visit to the United States next week makes him just the fourth pope to step foot on American soil.
The first three to make the trip were the last three long-serving popes—the list excludes John Paul I, who was pope for just over a month—a sign of how important U.S. visits have become for church leaders. “Popes come here not just to speak to the United States, but to speak to the world,” says Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Here’s what happened when previous popes visited:
Pope Paul VI
The first pope to visit the United States, Pope Paul VI arrived on an ambitious mission in 1965. It was a time of mounting obstacles to world peace—the middle of the Vietnam War, Cold War tensions rising, and yet another vote set for the United Nations to include China as a member. Paul wanted to “invoke the consciousness of the world,” says Schneck.
Paul addressed the United Nations at its New York City headquarters. “It is peace—peace—that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind,” he said, urging member states to move toward disarmament. “A person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.”
Pope John Paul II
With five official visits to the United States and two stopovers in Alaska, John Paul II visited the country more than any other Holy Father. “He was very much a pope on a plane," says Schneck, making official visits in 1979, 1987, 1993, 1995, 1999 and visiting more cities than any other pope—from Miami to San Francisco, from San Antonio to Detroit.
John Paul wanted to visit followers where they lived, focusing on young people. He felt “the future of the church lay in cultivating a relationship between the church and the youth of the world,” says Schneck. In August 1993, John Paul brought World Youth Day, an evangelical event he had staged around the globe, to Denver, Colorado.
During the festival he visited Mount Saint Vincent, a facility that cares for young people with special needs. “You are our love, you are our joy, you are our greatest concern," he told children there. "For your sake, we will work honestly and hard to build a better world, a true civilization of love.”
Pope Benedict XVI
The most recent papal visit to the U.S. came in 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI arrived with the goal of restating church teachings for the modern world.
He held mass at Washington D.C.’s Nationals Park, the city’s baseball stadium, and at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, along with a prayer service at the site of the World Trade Center. He also spoke at UN headquarters, as each past pope to visit the U.S. had done.
At the Nationals Park mass, Benedict addressed growing concerns in the U.S. about sexual abuse by priests. “It is in the context of this hope born of God’s love and fidelity that I acknowledge the pain which the Church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors," he said. "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.”