Delivery softer, but message is the same

For five days, Pope John Paul II spoke from his American pulpit, lecturing his flock on the enduring themes of Christianity: feed the hungry, visit the sick, defend the weak. He repeated familiar Roman Catholic prohibitions: no abortion, no assisted suicides, no euthanasia.

He called on Catholics to join religious orders and to evangelize. He defended the family. He exhorted the young to "stand up for purity." And before he left last night for Rome, he praised ecumenical cooperation.

Was anyone listening? Or were the crowds just there for the spectacle of the fourth, perhaps the last, American tour of his papacy?

Polls show that many American Catholics, though respectful of the pope as the head of their church, go their own way on issues such as premarital sex, birth control and even abortion. Enrollment in seminaries and convents remains far lower than in the 1960s.

But Jude P. Dougherty, dean of Catholic University's School of Philosophy in Washington, believes Americans wanted to hear the pope's sermons.

"The populace as a whole seems hungry for moral instruction," he said. "All of us are aware there is something gone radically wrong with our culture. And here is a man who can articulate a time-transcending message."

Other voices of religion offer the same teachings, Mr. Dougherty said. "But the Holy Father can do it with style."

Since his arrival in Newark, N.J., on Wednesday -- through four Masses, several prayer services and more than a dozen speeches -- Pope John Paul heard the crowds chant his name exuberantly. He blessed the United Nations delegates who stood to applaud him. He charmed thousands by touching a child's face or joking about the weather or reaching for an TC outstretched hand.

The crowds were far smaller than those he drew on his first American tour, in 1979. They were smaller than many of his crowds in 1987 and 1993. But the faithful still stood in the rain or arose in the dark of the early morning just for a chance to see him.

After 17 years as pope, John Paul II is a stooped 75-year-old who moves stiffly, whose left hand trembles as he holds the text of his sermons. His tours are tightly choreographed, allowing him to see thousands but get close to few.

His voice, heavy with the inflections of his native Poland, is firm -- as firm as his insistence on the immutability of church teachings.

He enjoys the spotlight -- as might be expected from a man who once wanted to be an actor.

He transfixed 125,000 Mass-goers in Central Park on Saturday when he sang a little Polish Christmas hymn a cappella.

In Central Park and at Camden Yards, he seemed not to want to go home. He lingered on the stage long after the prayers had ended, gesturing to the throngs and enjoying the chants and cheers they gave back to him.

The showman holds a doctorate in philosophy, Mr. Dougherty said. Delivering his sermons, "he speaks from the chair of Peter and he speaks from the chair of the professor of philosophy."

He did not avoid issues being debated by American politicians. He urged the country that takes pride in the Statue of Liberty not to close its borders to immigrants. He reminded Americans that "extravagant affluence often conceals much hardship and poverty."

Brennan Hill, a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, said Pope John Paul's message is important in a country "where there's a conservative movement in government and also a very strong voice coming from the religious right."

"He serves as a wake-up call on social issues -- remember the sick, the needy, the mothers," Mr. Hill said. "He asked Catholics to remember their moral responsibilities."

In the rain outside Newark's Sacred Heart Cathedral on Wednesday, Manuel Losada said he heard the pope's message. "The pope is reason for hope," said Mr. Losada, 34, of the Bronx. "Always. He comes with a message that beyond this world there is something much, much better."

"A man like the pope makes people start thinking about each other," said Angel Cruz, 46, of Elizabeth, N.J.

A conservative on doctrinal and church discipline issues, Pope John Paul in past American visits has sounded almost scolding as he tried to inspire his listeners to more sacrifice and less indulgence.

This time, some listeners believe he was using gentler methods to deliver the same message.

He praised America as "a hospitable society, a welcoming culture." He referred to the country's fundamental beliefs in freedom, religious tolerance, the rights of the individual. "The great New York!" he shouted from the altar in Central Park.

But he followed praise with an exhortation to do better on such issues as abortion, care for the poor and support for the family.

"He attempted to put those issues in a context of America as a wonderful, generous country," said Frances Kissling, head of the abortion-rights group Catholics for a Free Choice.

The Catholic hierarchy has criticized her group for using Catholic in its name because of her support for abortion rights.

"This pope used to concentrate more on original sin," Ms. Kissling said.

"And on this visit, he concentrated on original blessing, what responsibilities that brings."

Some observers who have watched Pope John Paul on past trips found what he didn't say as interesting as what he did say.

On this visit, as compared with his earlier pastoral trips to the United States, Pope John Paul spoke in general terms, avoiding specific references either to world trouble spots or to discipline problems within the Roman Catholic Church.

"Unhappily, the world has yet to learn how to live with diversity," the pope said Thursday at the United Nations. But he did not discuss specifics -- as he has in the recent past -- of his concerns about suffering and injustice in the warring Balkans and Middle East.

On this 50th anniversary of the United Nations, he emphasized his belief in the necessity of preserving the world organization as a "moral center" for a troubled population contemplating the next 50 years.

But he touched more generally of the "rights of nations" -- seen as the rights of ethnic groups -- and did not hammer at protection of individual human rights as he had done 16 years ago.

On religious matters, he also avoided specific problems such as the sex abuse of children by some priests, which he decried in one of his speeches in Denver in 1993.

After five days talking to his American flock, the pontiff leaves behind Catholics who are "proud of this Holy Father," Mr. Dougherty said.

"His role is analogous to that of a poet. All of us have these deep insights, these emotions, but we're not able to articulate them," he said.

"Here, the pope-poet is articulating what we know is right."