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Pope's mission is primarily a spiritual one


Pope John Paul II returns to the United States today as a head of state, a world celebrity and the spiritual leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics.

While the three roles overlap, the single-minded purpose of the trip is religious. During his four-day visit to New York and New Jersey, the pontiff will celebrate Mass for many thousands of worshipers and meet with Protestant and Jewish leaders. On Sunday, John Paul comes as preacher and symbol of faith to Baltimore - center of the nation's oldest Catholic diocese - for the first time since he was elected pope in 1978.

At the United Nations tomorrow afternoon, he will speak as a churchman on a "pastoral visit" to New York, said Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, chief spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops. He will address the U.N. General Assembly, deliver a separate speech to the U.N. staff and meet privately with the U.N.'s top officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The pope is expected to sound familiar themes: the quest for peace, the protection of life from conception to old age, the importance of high ethical and moral standards. On the world stage, he has cast himself as a force that governments as well as religious leaders must reckon with.

In Baltimore, church officials await the pope's visit with excitement. "For a day," Cardinal William H. Keeler said, "our city will be the center of attention for all the world. For a day, Baltimore will be the world capital of our faith."

They hope, too, that the excitement will reverberate in the archdiocese beyond the weekend. The numbers of worshipers at Mass increased in Denver, for example, after John Paul's 1993 visit there on his most recent U.S. trip. A comparison of Denver's weekly Mass attendance in 1992 with 1994 showed an increase of more than 7 percent.

When the pope is greeted at Giants Stadium, the Aqueduct Raceway and Central Park this week, and at Camden Yards on Sunday, there is sure to be adulation from star-struck crowds.

The durability of the pope's popularity among non-Catholics and Catholics alike - even though many strongly disagree with him on theological and church discipline questions - was a given for the planners of Sunday's Baltimore visit. They anticipate crowds of up to 300,000 for the downtown parade, as people are drawn by his renown, by his familiar image as the grandfatherly figure with the deep musical voice, by the colorful trappings of his ancient office.

Although an injury and operation forced cancellation of last October's planned trip to New York and Baltimore, the most-traveled pope in history has since preached in the Philippines, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Belgium, Slovakia, Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa.

The 75-year-old pontiff is due to touch down at Newark International Airport in New Jersey at 3 p.m. today, where he will be greeted by President Clinton and will read the first of no fewer than 14 - and possibly as many as 19 - formal addresses before Sunday night's return to Rome from Baltimore. Such a barrage of speeches is routine for papal trips.

Except that his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly is in part a celebration of the international body's 50th anniversary, the precise subject of the addresses has not been disclosed, an aide to the Vatican's U.N. observer said. Papal texts are closely guarded secrets and remain so until church officials release them to the news media at the time of delivery.

If precedent is followed, the speeches will be long, will be weighted with theological terminology and biblical quotations, will adhere strictly to Catholic tradition, and will admonish listeners about perceived deviations of the popular culture from acceptable morality.

Almost certainly there will be reaffirmations of Catholic teachings banning abortion, euthanasia and artificial birth control, lessons the pope invariably repeats on his trips to America.

Some of John Paul's remarks in the New York area and in Baltimore are likely to be topical. He is expected to repeat concerns about suffering and injustice in the Balkans, to pray for the victims of hatred and violence throughout the world, to call again for a nuclear test ban.

His U.N. appearance comes 16 years after his impassioned address to the international organization during his first U.S. visit as pope. In that 1979 speech, he attacked war and "the continual preparations for war." It has been a recurring theme of his writing and speech-making ever since.

He rarely ad libs, as the printed texts become part of the voluminous papal record, translated by the Vatican into many languages. In Denver two years ago, however, he joked self-deprecatingly several times that his speeches were too long. Those asides were wildly applauded. And last-minute changes to his schedule are possible, as during his four-day visit to Slovakia in July, when he added an unplanned stop for prayers at a monument to 24 Calvinists killed by Catholics in the 17th century.

With John Paul's instincts as an actor (and early training on the stage), and his drive to bring his traditionalist brand of Christianity - his "new evangelization" - to every nation through modern means of communication and transportation, he has achieved triumphs as a self-described "pilgrim pope."

But not always.

In Brussels in June, when newspaper surveys reported indifference and alienation among Belgian Catholics, especially students, because of his refusal to lift the Vatican bans on premarital sex, contraceptives, female ordinations and married priests, a third of the seats were empty for a major address by John Paul.

"Belgians are highly educated with a collective maturity," the Rev. Luc De Fleurquin, a Catholic professor of canon law, explained to the National Catholic Reporter. "You can't tell them as you would a child that 'discussion is closed.'"

Indifference on the Belgian scale will probably not be noticeable in the New York area or in Baltimore because loyalty to John Paul and his office remains strong in the United States even among liberal and progressive Catholics.

But the church's laity is no longer monolithic, if it ever was. Increasingly insistent are the voices of what the Rev. Avery Dulles, a Jesuit scholar at Fordham University, has called the "healthy and proper ... tensions and arguments in the church." Many Catholics disagree with the pope on his stern censure of all abortions, contraception and discussions of women's ordination, and his refusal to consider changing the celibacy requirement for priests.

Practically on the eve of this American visit by the pope, more than 40 members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, led by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee and including Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore, have issued a call for more openness by the Vatican to concerns of U.S. clergy and laity.

"While the Catholic Church is the largest religious body in the United States and its membership continues to increase," the document says, "it is evident that all is not well. Parishes and dioceses find diminishing numbers at Sunday Eucharist and disaffection among youth, women, Hispanics. Catholic bishops experience a credibility problem with many faithful people."

Avoiding direct criticism or mention of John Paul by name, the document complains that bishops who question, or try to question, Vatican decisions are left out of the loop.

Cardinal Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for the last three years, said he does not agree that there is a communications problem between the Vatican and the American church.

Paradoxically, divine authority of the pope so defines Catholicism that a theologian like the Rev. Charles Curran, whose right to teach at Catholic University was withdrawn because his orthodoxy was suspect at the Vatican, nevertheless remains deferential to the papacy.

So, a papal visit - although there are always protests from dissident groups - remains a rare and special occasion for millions of Catholics. Cardinal Keeler emphasizes "the truly spiritual dimension of the Holy Father's visit."

Long a leader in his church's official relations with Jews, Muslims, various Protestant denominations and the Eastern Orthodox, Cardinal Keeler defines the pope's target audience very broadly, as "every faith group and all people of good will."

Ecumenical and interfaith overtures have brought friendly responses from a wide range of non-Catholics. Among them is Bishop-elect Robert W. Ihloff, who will represent Maryland's Episcopal diocese at the gathering of civic and religious leaders with the pope in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

"The pope's visit is a wonderful gift to the city and a wonderful gift to Roman Catholics in the area, a wonderful gift to all of us," he said. "Despite obvious differences of opinion I have with the pope on a variety of subjects, I will look forward to that visit."

But Sunday's Camden Yards Mass, available only to ticket-holders, is designed for the pope's Catholic followers, and they are being exhorted to an extra degree of fervor before the visit.

They were urged to adopt a regimen of "self-discipline, sacrifice and penance" as they await the arrival of the man Catholics call the "vicar of Christ," the "servant of the servants of God," the Bishop of Rome.

Pope's U.S. visits


Seven-day, six-city tour. Arrived in Boston from Ireland on Oct. 1. Stopped in New York; Philadelphia; countryside outside of Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago; and Washington, D.C. Left for Rome from Washington on Oct. 7.


Stopover in Fairbanks, Alaska, during May 2-12 trip to South Korea, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Thailand.


10-day, nine-city tour. Arrived in Miami on Sept. 10. Stopped in Columbia, S.C.; New Orleans; San Antonio; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Monterey, Calif.; San Francisco and Detroit. Left for Canada from Detroit on Sept. 19.


Aug. 12-15, Denver.

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