Papal Visit to America: What Did It Accomplish?

August 22, 1993|By FRANK P. L. SOMERVILLE

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.

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