Crowds of people from all over the United States and some from other countries flocked to St. Louis for the visit of Pope John Paul II in late January. The governor of Missouri and U.S. House minority leader Richard Gephardt joined the president and first lady, who flew from Washington to welcome the pope to the United States.
The schedule of activities of the man considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be the 264th pope included an evening visit to a rally attended by 21,000 youths. To emphasize the youthful nature of the day-long rally, which included Christian rock music and motivational speakers, tickets were available only to people under age 23.
The mass at which John Paul officiated took place in the huge Trans World Dome, organized for the event to seat more than 90,000, with overflow standing room available in the adjoining convention center.
I watched the excitement grow as the crowd swelled. The air grew more charged as the time approached for the pope to enter the stadium. His presence had a powerful impact on his admirers. "He is such a great and holy pope," enthused 22-year-old Sister Marie from the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Martyr Saint George in Alton, Illinois.
Brother Patrick of the Franciscan monastery in Meramec, Missouri, explained, "He can unite the Catholic Church in a special way."
Just before the pope's entrance, a procession of 250 cardinals and bishops, followed by more 1,000 priests, entered the stadium in organized ranks.
Finally arriving in the specially modified white Mercedes vehicle known as the popemobile, John Paul II toured the stadium to rapturous applause. Cries of "Viva Papa" rang out, and were met with louder applause. Archbishop Justin Rigali introduced the pope as "successor of Saint Peter and pastor of the universal church."
Amazingly, at one point when John Paul mentioned the name of Christ, I heard a loud shout of "You are Christ" that could be heard through the whole dome. It made me wonder how far some people would go in their admiration of him.
During his homily before the mass, he again inspired loud applause when he underscored the Catholic Church's stand for the sanctity of life and against abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and the death penalty. His comments were aimed at encouraging orthodoxy on these matters among American Catholics, many of whom are known not to toe the church line on such questions.
He encouraged American Catholics to be strong in the "new evangelization." The Catholic Church wants to rekindle an evangelistic fervor among its members as the new millennium dawns. The pope drew his loudest and most appreciative reaction when he proclaimed the importance of the family unit. "As the family goes," he intoned, "so goes the nation." He seemed to strike a chord with American Catholics.
This visit to St. Louis was a stop on the 85th pastoral trip outside Italy that Karol Wojtyla of Wadowice, Poland, has made since becoming Pope John Paul II. His travels illustrate a fairly recent trend and expanded role for the head of the Catholic Church. Between 1870, when the papal states in Italy were confiscated, until 1960, popes restricted themselves to Vatican City with an occasional visit to the papal summer residence of Castelgandolfo. Pope John XXIII broke this tradition with a brief trip in Italy in 1960.
But in 1964 a new view of international papal involvement began in earnest when the newly named Pope Paul VI proclaimed his intention to be a "pilgrim pope." Paul VI began his journeys by being the first pope to visit the Holy Land. According to Vatican sources, John Paul II has traveled more than any pope in history, covering more than 650,000 miles in his voyages, which have taken him to every corner of the world and brought him into contact with many nations' leaders. John Paul II has already had 900 meetings and audiences with political figures, including 160 audiences and encounters with prime ministers.
John Paul II has taken the idea of the pilgrim pope farther than any of his predecessors. "This pope has done more than any other pope as far as being a worldwide pastor is concerned," commented 49-year-old Benedictine brother Michael of Creve Coeur, Missouri. "The way he connects with all types of people is very impressive."
Sister Anselma of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr Saint George, in Alton, Illinois, expressed her view of the pope's standing as a leader. "The pope is a leader for all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic" she exclaimed. "He was chosen by God to lead the church, to lead all Christians closer to God and to lead them to greater unity among all Christians."
This evolving international presence of the pope has greatly expanded the influence of his office and position, even beyond the strictly religious arena. Some commentators have wondered whether the Berlin Wall would have come down as soon as it did had it not been for the involvement of John Paul II in defending the Solidarity movement in Poland. This trade-union-cum-civil-resistance organization, with close ties to the Catholic Church and its polish pope, opened the first successful breach in the monolithic structure of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. These events started a chain of events that eventually led to the collapse of the iron curtain and dissolution of the Soviet Bloc.
The modern geopolitical world could have been a quite different place without the intervention of the papacy.
2000 a Jubilee Year
John Paul II's visit to St. Louis was linked with the Catholic Church's preparation for the turn of the millennium. These preparations have been going on since at least 1994, when the pope wrote an apostolic letter, "As the Third Millennium Draws Near," in which he encouraged the church to prepare for 2000 as "the Great Jubilee," a celebration of the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ.
In the pope's recent Bull of Indication of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 (titled "The Mystery of the Incarnation," issued November 29, 1998), John Paul II inaugurated the final phase of preparation for the celebrations. This jubilee is planned as a time to reenergize the Catholic Church, to unify Christians of various denominations and to extend the influence of the church in non-Christian areas by evangelizing them.
Several points mentioned in "As the Third Millennium Draws Near" are specifically connected with his recent trip to Mexico City and St. Louis. The Synod of Bishops for America began in Rome in 1997 to discuss issues of importance to the church in North, Central and South America. It concluded with John Paul celebrating a mass in Mexico City on Jan. 23, the day after he issued a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which sums up the work of the synod and defines the goals of the church in the Americas.
The exhortation encourages Catholics to be active in "a new evangelization" that includes an inculturation (adaptation to the language and culture of the area) of the gospel, leading to evangelization of, among other key areas, "educational centers." The pope appealed for a dynamic and creative increase in cooperation between the "sister churches" on all continents.
The pontiff ended his St. Louis homily with a special prayer to Mary that illustrated the emphasis the pope places on the revitalization of the church and increasing its scope in the world starting in 2000.
Brother Patrick of the Franciscan Meramec monastery in the St. Louis area thinks the role of the church and pope needs to expand: "He is the pastor of everyone, the spiritual director of many people. He can bring unity among Christians. Nations listen to him. They respect and follow what he says."
This concept of outreach, led by the pontiff, is on the minds of many Catholics. Brother Michael, a Benedictine monk, expressed the view that "the trend of the traveling pilgrim pope must continue," and "it might even accelerate." He thinks "the worldwide mission of evangelization that the pope has taken on is amazing" and believes the Catholic Church must take the lead among all churches. "The Catholic church should be in the forefront, trying to gather the foundation of the worldwide church."
When I asked about the meaning of the third-millennium jubilee, Michael suggested that "the jubilee can be used to redefine us as Christians . . . This is a time to attempt true reconciliation with other churches. The millennium can be used to create unity and cooperation."
He made his point by mentioning the ecumenical prayer service, in which the pope would participate that evening. A rabbi would also participate, Michael pointed out, and "a few years ago that would have been impossible."
Planned Visit to Holy Land
The church's desire to reach out energizes John Paul's plans to visit the Holy Land in 2000 to, as he wrote, "visit the places on the road taken by the people of God of the Old Covenant, starting from the places associated with Abraham and Moses, through Egypt and Mount Sinai, as far as Damascus, the city which witnessed the conversion of St. Paul." His Holy Land itinerary represents an effort to bring together people of three of the world's great religions: Jews, Muslims and Christians.
As part of the preparation for the 2000 celebration, while in St. Louis the pope placed a seal on the doors in the Cathedral Basilica, as he had already done in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The doors are to remain closed and sealed until Christmas eve 1999, when the doors in Rome and St. Louis will be opened simultaneously. They will remain open until the official end of the following Christmas, on the Feast of the Epiphany, which falls Jan. 6, 2001.
In his homily, John Paul II explained the symbolism: "The great jubilee of the year 2000 will begin with the opening of the holy door in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. This is a powerful symbol of the church open to everyone who feels a need for the love and mercy of the heart of Christ."
In a potentially far-reaching development, a special press conference after the mass announced the start of the Vatican project of Centro Televisivo Vaticano, also called TV Beyond 2000. The conference, conducted by Vatican authorities and telecommunication experts, explained that, in accordance with regulations approved by the pope in May 1998, the Vatican is entering the world of international television broadcasting with its own press agency and television-program production.
TV Beyond 2000 will consist of live broadcasts from around the world inspired by Jubilee 2000 events. The project will involve experimental connections with interactive and multimedia broadcasting tools and is organized with the cooperation of the European Space Agency and television networks in several countries. The project, it was announced in St. Louis, would have an impact on the entire planet.
The next few years may indeed see new doors open to the Catholic Church. The Vatican obviously plans an aggressive program for expanding Catholic influence. The Catholic Church, and the papacy in particular, are sure to play a powerful and expanding role in world events both religious and secular as the new millennium dawns. Your life may well be affected by these events. You need to be aware of their significance.
Biblical prophecy has much to say about the religious and secular state of the world just before Christ returns. The influence of religion is a major topic of those prophecies.
Some of the trends developing today may well be a prelude to the conditions and events of that momentous time. The Good News magazine plans to keep you informed about the secular and biblical implications of these events. GN