Papal Visit to America: What Did It Accomplish?


The decision of Pope John Paul II to go to Colorado was a biggamble for the Roman Catholic Church. So much could go wrong -- and did.

Measured in those practical, if not cynical, terms, did the hugely expensive, risky trip pay off? (The official cost to the church was $4.5 million; additional charges to the taxpayers for security and military aircraft cannot be calculated.)

What will the myriad analysts and historians, inside and out of the Catholic Church, ultimately decide about the successes and failures of John Paul's third pastoral visit to this country as history's most traveled pope?

Strong images -- good photo opportunities, if you will -- and even ringing declamations do not necessarily make a successful religious extravaganza, but strong convictions do.

Especially if they are the affirmed convictions of the target audience: a whole new generation of articulate, probing, respectful young men and women, thousands upon thousands of them in T-shirts, hiking shorts and funny hats, speaking animatedly in a Babel of languages from around the world, the future leadership of a church with, more or less, a billion members.

Listen to a sample.

Brandi Adams, 17, of Sacred Heart Parish in Glyndon, Baltimore County:

The positive response of so many teen-agers to the white-robed grandfather figure and his stern messages was "incredible" to her.

She summed up her own reaction to the pope this way, "He is truly inspiring. He comes across as one of the most powerful, caring, most wonderful people in the world."

And the pollsters would place her on the dissident side of the ledger. While she believes "the empowerment of women in other parts of the world must come first, places like South America, India, Asia and Africa," she anticipates further advances for women in church and society in the United States and does not consider Pope John Paul's rejection of a female priesthood Catholicism's last word on the subject.

"It just might happen eventually," she said with a smile.

Brad Udvardy, 17, of St. John's Parish in Frederick:

"I tend to agree with Brandi. Americans are used to quick

changes. The church moves slowly."

How did the pope affect him personally? "I guess my expectation was that he would be charismatic, but not that powerful. Even without this title of pope, he would hold his own. He's, like, right up there with the president."

Michael J. Watts, 17, of the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City:

"I've been really impressed with how well he leads by example. And he's not afraid to speak up to President Clinton."

In a driving rain at Denver's Mile High Stadium, the pope "had the power to enable other people's faith to come forth. There were 80,000 kids, and he motivated them all with very little effort, seemingly."

Because a winning essay by Mike Watts was rewarded with a Catholic Relief Services-sponsored trip to Gambia this year, the Loyola High School senior found himself facing Bryant Gumbel on NBC television during the pope's visit.

Mr. Gumbel presented him with the usual laundry list of subjects on which American Catholics are said to differ with the church leadership -- abortion, homosexuality, birth control, ordination of women, a married clergy, some priests' sexual abuse of children and the way the bishops have dealt with this grim problem.

"It kind of blew me away," said the young interviewee.

Reflecting on the list later, he concluded, "They're obviously issues the church has to deal with. But that's not the purpose of World Youth Day. We realize the church is not perfect. But we're a community of believers. That's what we're here to celebrate."

As Amy Beall, 18, of Baltimore's Shrine of the Little Flower, put it, the whole experience of seeing the pope in the midst of so many loyal followers was "full of inspiration and really gets you pumped up."

Said a breathless girl from New Jersey, "I can't believe it. I'm so close to him, and he's so close to God."

Said a serious young man from Uganmoral leader of the world."

The assessments were readily given off the tops of young heads.

For many participants, "Popestock" was Woodstock without the drugs. It was a rock concert with a pope instead of a rock star, a jamboree, a camping trip, big-city sightseeing and the world's biggest slumber party all rolled into one. Denver was euphoric. The politeness of the young visitors, the lack of crime, even the lack of littering left the city's residents incredulous.

But more significant, perhaps, than the good behavior and theological discipline of the star-struck multitude was the formal report to the pope by representatives of the International Youth Forum. These were 270 Catholic student leaders from more than 100 countries, hand-picked by their bishops.

In advance of their report, Vatican officials nervously kept a lid on the students' lively debate in seven languages at Denver's Regis University. It was closed to the press and public, said a Vatican spokeswoman, to protect their privacy.

Whether the final document was toned down or not, it is an intelligent, candid, affirming discussion of the place of the Catholic Church in today's world and the students' role in it.

"We come from all corners of the earth, from the Middle East to Europe, from Africa to Asia, from Australia to the Americas," they told the pope. "Today, we wish to speak to the youth of the world not about problems, despair and hatred, but about possibilities, hope and love.

"Many of us have brought to this forum not only our youthfulness and faith, but also pain of war, disunity, the divisiveness of racism, the indifference of materialism and the perils of poverty. We could wallow in the complexities and enormities of these problems. . . .

"On the other hand, we could make our voice ring out with strength, role up our sleeves and work for change."

They spoke following last Sunday's four-hour-long outdoor Mass Cherry Creek State Park south of Denver. The worship and the meeting took place on an elaborate stage the size of a football field, built for the papal visit. It was roofed against the broiling sun that felled some 14,000 in the crowd of 375,000 with dehydration and other illnesses.

Exacerbated by the lack of shade in the thin mountain air and an inadequate supply of drinking water, the medical emergencies overwhelmed doctors, nurses and paramedics in first-aid tents on the fringes of the crowd.

Fortunately, that cloudless day is likely to be remembered for the students' words to the pope about a different thirst.

"We recognize that, united with our brothers and sisters, we are the church of today and the church of tomorrow," they said. "We share with believers and non-believers alike a thirst for truth, a hunger for solidarity, and a desire for self-giving.

"As youth, we tend to be demanding, critical and inquisitive. We do not ask the young people to abandon their uncertainties, questions or criticisms. Rather, we ask all those who call themselves Christians to allow themselves to be guided by grace to encounter Christ in the church, through the sacraments, prayer and the reception of the Word."

But it was hard to avoid the symbolism of the papal altar's distance from the thousands of fainting and vomiting teen-agers, many of whom had fasted. A religious pilgrimage, they had been told, is a time of self-sacrifice, even suffering.

The actual hardships apparently went unnoticed from the stage -- certainly unmentioned -- like a war zone invisible to the command post. Briefly, a comparison seemed compelling: the distances from the altar to the edges of that vast, hot, sweaty, dusty and restless crowd were like the distances between the labyrinthine, Old World Vatican and the rank and file of struggling Catholics in the pews.

As if to capitalize on such symbolism, a coalition of 33 dissident Catholic organizations converged on Denver to bring their versions of Christian truth to the papal celebration.

From Catholics for a Free Choice, the abortion rights activists, to Dignity, the church's gay rights group, from nuns who want to be priests to priests who want to be allowed to marry, these church members in the trenches spoke daily of specifics instead of the ** grand generalities.

A local woman testified bitterly about a parish and school in Denver's inner city closed for lack of funds, dispersing a community of poor Hispanics, at the time millions of dollars were being spent on the papal visit.

A Virginia woman told of a priest with AIDS who committed suicide after infecting an undetermined number of young boys through sexual abuse. The case "will soon blow up like Mount Vesuvius," she said, because church officials made no effort to find out who the priest's victims were before he died.

The Rev. William Smarth appeared at one of the alternative convocations as a spokesman for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the controversial Catholic priest recently reinstated as president of Haiti. Father Smarth accused the Vatican of complicity in attacks on the democratically elected liberation theologian. "More than 2,000 people were killed, and not a word of protest from the Catholic hierarchy," the priest lamented.

Such angry testimony continued daily at the alternative press conferences while the pope was in town. A refrain by the liberal Catholics to describe the part of the church they claim to represent -- "the marginalized," an expression that has yet to make it into the dictionary -- certainly applied to their status in Denver. Even their crowded press conferences were dwarfed by the happy throngs singing, dancing, hiking and otherwise celebrating the pope's presence.

Asked why they remain part of an institution they believe has so many faults, the dissidents' answer was invariably the same: "We, not they, are the Catholic Church."

As in his cross-country tours in 1979 and 1987, the strong-minded John Paul II attracted more criticism from within his church than outside it.

His critics might like to quote the Book of Hosea -- "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind" -- but the fact is that the pope's good humor, his eloquently stated concern for the moral well-being of every member of the human race, his undeviating challenge to replace a "culture of death" with a "culture of life" in American society were wildly cheered by the 186,000 World Youth Day registrants.

The Roman Catholic Church, it seems, can take heart from at least one whirlwind it has sown: the confident document penned by the student leaders. "We are convinced of one thing," they told the pope. "In Christ, we can change the world."

Frank Somerville, religion writer for The Baltimore Sun, has covered all three trips by Pope John Paul II to the United States.

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