Pope John Paul II's four-day stay in Denver ended Sunday on a more conciliatory note than many observers had predicted. Rather than conclude his visit with an exclamation-point of a speech deriding American moral values, the pope addressed the 400,000 worshipers at a four-hour Mass in terms that for the most part were upliftingly pastoral.
To be sure, his prepared text for the occasion included direct condemnations of abortion and euthanasia as examples of this century's "culture of death." But he omitted this and other admonishing passages. Perhaps he sought only to shorten a service at which thousands of worshipers were overcome by high temperatures and thin air. Or perhaps he deferred to the theological independence of many American Catholics, especially the young people who constituted much of the crowd at this "Catholic Woodstock."
Whatever the cause, the pope's speech surprised some listeners with its gentle challenge to live as Jesus prescribed in the Gospels two millenniums ago. As the pontiff himself said in an ad-lib near the end of his address, practically admitting that his remarks were unexpected, "The Pope has not spoken [at the Mass] against American civilization, American society, American television. He has spoken for an authentic promotion of what is civilization, what is culture -- for human dignity."
Pope John Paul II had harsh words for American culture on his two previous visits to the United States, in 1979 and 1987. Six years ago, in fact, he criticized the notion of dissent within the church in a scolding speech to the U.S. bishops. No doubt he will again express his disappointment with the way many Americans -- Catholic or otherwise -- perceive right and wrong. In Denver, though, the pope seemed to concede that the American tradition of free thought and the ancient traditions of Catholic faith need not be mutually exclusive.
Indeed, many American Catholics believe their faith would be false if they failed to question the church when they felt it was in error. While the pope might not wish to encourage such thinking, he sounded last Sunday as if he at least understands and respects it.