ST. LOUIS -- Pope John Paul II, in the final day of his pilgrimage to the Americas, yesterday called on the nation's Roman Catholics to be "unconditionally pro-life" and renewed his absolute opposition to the death penalty.
The pope returned to Rome last night aboard Shepherd I, a specially outfitted TWA jet, after a weeklong trip that took him to Mexico and concluded with a 30-hour stopover in St. Louis.
At a prayer service last night at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis -- attended by Vice President Al Gore and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks -- the pope greeted leaders of St. Louis' Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant and Orthodox Christian communities.
Under a dome covered with brilliantly colored mosaic scenes, Pope John Paul reminded the country of its obligation to the world.
"At the end of this century -- at once marked by unprecedented progress and by a tragic toll of human suffering -- radical changes in world politics leave America with a heightened responsibility to be for the world an example of a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society.
"And so, America: If you want peace, work for justice," the pope said. "If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth -- the truth revealed by God."
During a Mass yesterday morning in the cavernous Trans World Dome, Pope John Paul exhorted the faithful to engage in a "new evangelism" in the Third Christian Millennium, fighting against anything that threatens the dignity of the human person.
"As believers, how can we fail to see that abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide are a terrible rejection of God's gift of live and love?" the pope asked the 100,000 people who gathered at the dome and at an adjacent convention facility.
Although the 78-year-old pope was difficult to understand because of his heavy accent and speech that is slurred from the effects of what is believed to be Parkinson's disease, the congregation followed his homily by reading captioning on large-screen monitors throughout the stadium.
"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life, who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation," the pontiff said to sustained applause.
And he addressed the issue of capital punishment. "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
"Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
Missouri had been scheduled to execute Darrell Mease, 52, a convicted murderer, yesterday. In November, the execution was rescheduled without explanation by the state Supreme Court for Feb. 10.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called the execution's postponement "a mockery."
In his sermon, Pope John Paul challenged America to "put an end to every form of racism, a plague which your bishops have called one of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation."
Tom Lavelle of suburban St. Louis arose at 1: 30 a.m. to get his place in line for the Mass. A large portrait of Our Lady of Guadelupe, the patroness of the Americas, hung from his neck.
"The pope emphasized her in Mexico. He gave her to all of us, north and south," he said. "'I'm so thrilled he's here. He's our shepherd. He's the head of our church. That's it."
As the pope entered the Trans World Dome in his "popemobile" -- the Vatican's name for the pope's vehicle -- the scene was lighted by the dazzle of thousands of flashbulbs, and the roar from the congregation rivaled any heard for a St. Louis Rams touchdown.
Afterward, the crowd filed out to find an unseasonably balmy winter afternoon. Teresa Entzeroth, of nearby St. Peter's, Mo., who was accompanied by her husband and 11-year-old daughter, had a hard time expressing her feelings.
"Do you want me to start crying?" she said, choking back tears nearly 30 minutes after the Mass. "It's almost unexplainable."
"He's truly a saint in our midst," she said. "I fell very blessed to have had him in our city."
Pub Date: 1/28/99