Pope, young Catholics to meet against backdrop of changing moral standards


The meeting of young Roman Catholics with Pope John Paul II this week in Denver promises to test tensions between the religious leader's vision of his church and widely accepted standards of American morality.

For example, Maryland teen-agers Debbie Moody and Jamie Berry share a strong Catholic faith as well as their excited anticipation of the pope's pilgrimage to Colorado, which is expected to attract 170,000 other young Catholics from around the country and around the world.

But Ms. Moody of Middletown in Frederick County and Mr. Berry of northeast Baltimore, both 17, also share a belief that the 73-year-old pope is too rigid on at least one moral issue -- birth control.

The pair are two of the more than 450 teen-agers and young adults from the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore who will arrive in Denver tomorrow for events culminating next Sunday in the World Youth Day '93 outdoor Mass to be celebrated by the pontiff.

AMs. Moody and Mr. Berry are not alone in their beliefs concerning the pope's rigidity on some topics.

Surveys show that most Catholics in the United States differ as much with their conservative pontiff on sexual morality today as when he visited this country in 1979 -- a year after his election -- and in 1987.

Teachings reinforced

Both times, he reinforced strict church authority and unpopular teachings: mainly his opposition to artificial birth control, abortion, sex outside marriage, married priests and the ordination of women. He is expected to do so again during his four days in Denver.

"Obviously, the church is not as well supported on everything as it used to be," said Ms. Moody, who will be a senior this fall at Middletown High School.

While she admires the pope's emphasis on traditional morality and doctrine generally, she blames him for some of the erosion of Catholic loyalty.

"On certain things, like the place of women in the church and birth control, I wish he would change, I wish he would be more modern," she said.

It is not the view of an outsider.

Active church member

Ms. Moody describes herself as "actively involved with the church." She is a member of the Youth Council of Holy Family Parish in Middletown.

She is excited by the prospect of being with "thousands of other young people who are interested in the church, who are interested in more than the typical high school things like sports."

Whether John Paul's popularity has dropped is of little concern to her. "He seems very far away," she said. "The events surrounding his visit are more of a draw than the pope himself."

Mr. Berry, who graduated from Loyola High School this year and will enter Marquette University in Milwaukee in the fall, does not entirely agree. "To tell the truth, I think the pope is the central thing," he said. "There's sort of a presence about him. I expect to feel the faith coming off of him in Denver.

"It's a big highlight for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

But like Ms. Moody, Mr. Berry is disappointed by what he sees as the pope's intransigence on some religious and social issues.

"Times are changing, and there's a new breed of Catholic," the Shrine of the Little Flower parishioner said. "The church can preach and preach and preach that contraceptives shouldn't be allowed, but if some people can't afford to have children, and yet are married and are faithful to Catholic ideals, why shouldn't they allowed to have sex?"

He said he is "strongly against abortion because it's taking a life," but even on that issue there needs to be some Catholic flexibility. "In extreme cases, such as incest or rape, it might be justified," he said.

The World Youth event is a biennial international gathering of Catholics, ages 13 to 39, started by the pope eight years ago in Rome. His subsequent World Youth celebrations were in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1987; Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1989; and Czestochowa, Poland, in 1991.

The pontiff is scheduled to arrive in Denver Thursday after stops today and tomorrow in Kingston, Jamaica, and Wednesday in Merida, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Pope John Paul regularly uses his world travels -- this week's will be the 60th trip of his 15-year papacy -- to focus on what he sees as social, cultural and moral questions specific to the country he is visiting. His rousing speeches about democracy in Chile in 1987 were considered a powerful influence in the peaceful stepping aside of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The Vatican denied reports last week in Europe that the pope might use his trip to the United States to issue the encyclical -- the papal teaching document -- on morality that he has been preparing for at least three years. But there has been speculation that his speeches in Denver will draw on its text to reaffirm once again the unpopular Catholic ban on artificial birth control and to curtail theologians' dissenting writings on this and other moral questions.

The unpublished encyclical on morality, "Veritatis Splendor" -- or "The Splendor of the Truth" -- is thought to address such practices as the promotion of the use of condoms for the sake of health in American public schools.

As president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler is chairman of this week's events. He will greet the pope on his arrival at Denver's airport Thursday evening and introduce him to President Clinton. The president and the pope then will meet privately for 45 minutes at Denver's Regis University.

The vice chairman of the World Youth celebration is Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver, a native of Baltimore and former auxiliary bishop here. The pope will spend one night in a mountain retreat house in Estes Park, Colo., and two nights in Archbishop Stafford's residence next to the Denver cathedral.

70 nations represented

There are three public events at which the visitors from the Baltimore archdiocese and the thousands of others from 70 countries expect to catch a glimpse of the pope. They are a Friday evening Way of the Cross service at the 70,000-seat Mile High Stadium; the Saturday evening start of an all-night prayer vigil at Cherry Creek, a state park south of Denver; and the Sunday morning outdoor Mass, also at Cherry Creek, which may attract as many as 500,000 worshipers.

L There are about 330,000 Catholics in the Denver archdiocese.

A rally Aug. 1 in the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City was attended by most of the teen-agers going to Denver from the Baltimore area. They were advised to take a backpack, sleeping bag, insect repellent, sunscreen, poncho and "a blanket or ground cloth and pad to cushion the rough terrain at Cherry Creek."

Except for the Saturday night vigil in the state park, however, most of them will be staying in a Best Western motel, about 4 miles from downtown Denver, where pizza deliveries to the guests' rooms are promised each night.

During the preparatory meeting in Ellicott City, the young Marylanders were told to think of themselves as religious pilgrims. "This is a pilgrimage, not a convention," a member of the archdiocesan staff said. "Expect a little bit of suffering."

The pilgrims were given some rules and warned not to break them. "No visiting is permitted in hotel rooms occupied by members of the opposite sex," they were told.

Participants were also advised "that there will be an extraordinary amount of media coverage" of the Denver events and "your voice and actions will be broadcast to the world."

The pope's visit is sure to attract demonstrators with a wide spectrum of viewpoints, Catholic and otherwise. Among those expected to send representatives to observe, carry signs, distribute leaflets or hold press conferences are: Dignity, the Catholic gay-lesbian association; Catholics Speak Out, a liberal reform network, and the Women's Ordination Conference.

The Catholic Organization for Renewal, claiming to represent more than 30 groups of Catholic activists, is sponsoring an appearance Wednesday by Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Catholic priest and outspoken proponent of liberation theology who is Haiti's deposed president. The Vatican is the only political entity that recognizes the military government of Haiti, which has been widely accused of terror and brutality.

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