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How Pope Francis’ Trip Retraces the First Papal Visit to Africa

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The crowd at the Entebbe airport had been waiting for hours, but spirits were high — drummers, singers and dancers milled about while the Police Band prepared to perform the Ugandan National Anthem. The Ugandan President was on hand to greet the celebrated guest, along with four other heads of African states. Then Paul VI touched down on the tarmac, and on July 31, 1969, became the first reigning Pope to ever visit Africa.

“Roman Catholics number about 3,000,000 in Uganda—one of Africa’s most Christianized countries,” TIME reported in the next issue, “But during the visit of Pope Paul VI last week, it seemed as if all of its 9,000,000 citizens had become instant Romans.”

On Wednesday, Pope Francis will travel to Africa for his first papal visit to that continent. The visit comes nearly half a century after Paul’s, but Francis’ route in Uganda will retrace some of his predecessor’s steps.

Paul was primarily concerned with working towards peace for the Nigerian Civil War, TIME reported, but the trip to Uganda was planned so he could dedicate a shrine to 22 African Catholic martyrs. At the time, the Catholic Church in Africa was rapidly growing and Paul’s meetings with church leaders focused largely on increasing the independence of the developing communities. “You are missionaries to yourselves now,” said the Pope. This time around, Pope Francis will also address an ongoing civil war and an evolving Catholic population.

In Namugongo, Paul dedicated the partially-built Uganda Martyrs Shrine and celebrated the Mass with more than 100,000 people. Francis will visit that same basilica to celebrate Mass on Nov. 28.

And at least one other element of that 1969 trip is sure to be repeated too: the excitement. As TIME reported, Paul’s visit was the occasion for much rejoicing:

It was the first time that a reigning Pontiff had ever visited Africa, and for Uganda, the host country, it was the biggest event since the nation won its independence from Britain in 1962. …There were Pope Paul coins, Pope Paul stamps and Pope Paul folk songs, including a pop calypso that likened the Pontiff’s visit to “a shooting star in the dark of the night.” Shop-door signs along the papal route proclaimed “Pepsi Welcomes the Pope.”

Read the full story from 1969, here in the TIME Vault: A Sacred Safari for the Pope

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Write to Julia Zorthian at julia.zorthian@time.com