The 'Woo' Heard Round the World


It was 30 years ago … John Paul II taught America to pray.

What I remember best from his first trip to the United States as Pope was not a prayer, or even a huge outdoor Mass. Rather, it was a "woo!" Those attending the Pope's meeting with young people in New York's Madison Square Garden -- and those, like me, watching on TV -- will never forget.

High schoolers, most dressed better than they would for Sunday Mass -- the boys with the 70s Sonny Bono look, the girls appearing as one of the Partridge Family females -- were packed into the Garden, with JP II at center stage, where rock stars performed.

Today's 20-something Catholics have to understand and the rest of us need to remember what a sensation this event was. Here was the Pope -- young, strong, masculine and smiling, in the midst of an arena of New York teens. We had just been through a decade of post-Vatican II confusion and the deaths of two popes in 1978, and here was this vibrant, white-clad figure with a face that showed the sufferings of the century as well as the new life in the Church he came to lead.

Selected teens had spoken of their lives and concerns, and presented the Pope with gifts, and all were ready to hear him speak. He paused, played on their anticipation. They screamed, shouted loving words and were ready to jump to their feet on cue. Then came the "woo!" Not just "woo!" but "ooh," and a strange, guttural "hmmm".

He sat in his chair, microphone positioned to catch his every word, English script in his hand, and spent two minutes making noises from the depths of his heart, as if to tell the teens and all Americans that mere words could not express his love, his hope, his joy, his utter amazement at the grace of God and the beauty of youthful faith. "Woo, woo, woo, woo …" he intoned. (You can see the moments on YouTube.)

My brother and I watched the TV, amazed. We had gone through eight years of New York City parochial school and graduated from Catholic high school, yet we had never heard anything like this.

I turned to my brother and said, "We have a Pope who says woo."

That single moment set us back on the road to faith, to prayer and regular attendance at Mass. This man "from a far place" had touched us through the mass media that he loved, with the simple "groaning of the Spirit" that seemed to gather up all the confusion, hurt, missteps and sins of our early adulthood and offer them to a merciful God who could smile and tease his children. A 20-year-old in 1979 could feel pretty world-weary and cynical of religion. Yet John Paul told us to walk together with him and ask the deep questions we wanted to ask and find the surprising answers we were aching to embrace.

In him I saw Christ. Not Christ the Protector of my childhood that I had self-consciously left behind, but Christ the Adventurer, the Worker, the Warrior, ready to take on the world with great strength and a sense of humor. The Catholic faith was alive, and I was drawn to it anew.

We had a Pope who said woo!

Pope John Paul II and the youth of American, Madison Square Gardens 1979


Brian Caulfield. "The 'Woo' Heard Round the World." Fathers for Good (September 21, 2009).

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