Evoking spirit in St. Louis

Pontiff challenges Americans to embrace justice, less fortunate

January 27, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Recalling the daring and accomplishment of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, Pope John Paul II arrived here yesterday and challenged America to use that same civic spirit to work for justice for the poor, the weak and the unborn.

The pope arrived to an enthusiastic welcome by hundreds of thousands of St. Louisians, who lined the streets waving yellow, blue and white papal flags while the city's church bells pealed in greeting.

In the first hours of his pastoral visit, the pontiff met a wide variety of Americans -- from President Clinton to cheering children to cardinals to baseball home-run record-holder Mark McGwire.

"I am pleased to have another opportunity to thank the American people for the countless works of human goodness and solidarity which, from the beginning, have been such a part of the history of your country," Pope John Paul said, shortly after arriving from Mexico at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for a 30-hour stay in this city on the Mississippi River.

"At the same time, I know that you will hear my plea to open wide your hearts to the ever-increasing plight and urgent needs of our less fortunate brothers and sisters throughout the world," he said.

"This, too -- the spirit of compassion, concern and generous sharing -- must be part of the Spirit of St. Louis."

The pope noted that St. Louis is also the place where the Dred Scott case was first argued, a suit that resulted in the Supreme Court decision that "declared an entire class of human beings -- people of African descent -- outside the boundaries of the national community and the Constitution's protection."

"America faces a similar time of trial today," the pope said. "Today, the conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings -- the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered `unuseful' -- to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."

The pope was greeted at the airport by a delegation that included Clinton and Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler. On entering the hangar where the arrival ceremonies took place, Clinton took the frail pontiff by the arm as the president prepared to introduce him to members of his Cabinet.

But on seeing a young boy in a wheelchair, Pope John Paul made a detour to touch the child's head and give his blessing.

Praise for inspiration

Clinton, who flew to St. Louis from Washington, where his impeachment trial is dragging on, praised the pope for his inspiration and his admonishment of Americans.

"For 20 years, you have lifted our spirits and touched our hearts," Clinton said. "For 20 years, you have challenged us to think of life not in terms of what we acquire for ourselves, but in terms of what we give of ourselves."

Although some have speculated that this could be the last trip to the United States for the ailing pontiff, who is widely believed to be suffering from Parkinson's disease, Clinton told the pope he hoped they would meet again.

"Your Holiness, every American welcomes you and hopes that you will come to see us again," Clinton said, adding the Polish phrase, "Sto Lat i Wiecej," which translates as, "May you live a hundred years and more."

Private meeting with Clinton

After the arrival ceremony, Pope John Paul met privately with Clinton for about 30 minutes. There was wide speculation that the pope, in that meeting, was critical of U.S. policy in Cuba and the recent bombings in Iraq.

In the official text of his remarks at the arrival ceremony, which he did not read, the pope decried violence, including "the violence of armed conflict, which does not resolve but only increases divisions and tensions."

Cardinal Keeler, who was in Mexico with Pope John Paul, said the pontiff was bearing up well despite the hectic schedule.

"At Sunday Mass, I thought he showed great stamina," Keeler said. "His voice was so loud and so clear that he was communicating very, very effectively with all of us."

Keeler and the other cardinals on the trip had lunch with the pope on Monday in Mexico.

"I approached him and he said, `Baltimore, Baltimore,' " which is the pope's nickname for Keeler. "And I brought him the love of our people to him."

Last night, before a youth rally and prayer service, the pope met backstage with McGwire, who knelt and kissed the papal ring.

Then Pope John Paul told an audience of more than 20,000 young people that they were in training for the work of the Lord.

"I am told that there was much excitement in St. Louis during the recent baseball season, when two great players, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, were competing to break the home run record," he said.

"You can feel the same great enthusiasm as you train for a different goal: the goal of following Christ, the goal of bringing his message to the world."

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