Pope John Paul II on the Oct. 15, 1979, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: NEIL LEIFER
By Julia Zorthian
September 22, 2015

Pope Francis will be only the third Pope to visit the White House when he steps onto the South Lawn on Wednesday, 36 years after Pope John Paul II became the first Pontifex to visit a President at home.

That 1979 visit, during President Jimmy Carter’s term, was a long time coming: Woodrow Wilson and Pope Benedict XV were the first incumbent President and Pope to meet, in 1919, and Pope Paul VI had met with Lyndon Johnson on U.S. shores in 1965, but a weak relationship between the American government and the Vatican had not facilitated a formal meeting at the White House.

When John Paul II changed that pattern—as part of a week-long tour of the U.S., during which he hit six cities and spoke 69 times—TIME’s cover line about the trip was “John Paul, Superstar,” which gives a sense of how Americans received the Pope. (He packed Madison Square Garden; some things haven’t changed.) President Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale welcomed John Paul under the North Portico, where Carter addressed him in his native Polish. It was, the magazine noted, “a happening that would have been inconceivable in U.S. politics just two decades ago,” but was by that point a clear crowd-pleaser:

Carefully noting the American tradition of separation of church and state, Carter also lauded John Paul: “You have moved among us as a champion of dignity and decency for every human being, and as a pilgrim for peace among nations. You have offered us your love, and we as individuals are heartened by it. You can be sure, Pope John Paul, that the people of America return your love.” At that, John Paul clasped his hands and quickly touched his heart.

In his reply, the Pope congratulated the President on his Polish. He said that he wished to be “the messenger of peace and brotherhood, and a witness to the true greatness of every person.” John Paul said he hoped the meeting would serve the cause of world peace, international understanding and the promotion of full respect for human rights everywhere.” He ended with his now-familiar “God bless America!” which brought the applauding guests to their feet.

The President and the Pope spoke privately for over an hour. According to Carter’s personal notes in the National Archives, they each drew on their strong Christian beliefs as they discussed human rights situations across the world.

After their meeting, the pair emerged and addressed the crowd of 6,000 gathered on the South Lawn. There, the President addressed the Pope warmly and said, “As human beings each acting for justice in the present—and striving together for a common future of peace and love—let us not wait so long for ourselves and for you to meet again. Welcome to our country, our new friend.”

Read the full story from 1979, here in the TIME Vault: The Pope in America

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