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Cover story

Papal visit sparks memories

NCR Staff
St. Louis

Fall 1979. Pope John Paul II was making a historic first visit to the United States. “Historic” was the operative word in articles about the event, as author Garry Wills pointed out in his acerbic critique of the way American journalists venerated the visitor from Rome in a carnival of excess and “make-believe.”

Even the most hard-nosed news professionals seemed incapable of a shred of objectivity, let alone analysis or historical context, Wills wrote in a 1980 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. His article remains as one of the most endearing and enduring souvenirs of that papal event.

“Miracles abounded. Crowds surged. The pope glowed. And the press swooned,” Wills wrote. “Instead of reporting the papal visit, journalists celebrated it like a pack of acolytes.”

Guilty as charged. Recently hired as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I joined the celebratory chorus in a feature story scribbled in longhand in the back seat of a homeward-bound car and phoned in to an editor at 3 a.m. The article chronicled a pilgrimage by a caravan of St. Louis families, including ours, to Des Moines. The pope, elected almost exactly one year before, said Mass on an Iowa farm following his tour of the Eastern seaboard.

Our six families, dutifully Catholic, included 16 kids. The Schaeffer five ranged in age from 16 to 8. That year the families making the journey had few reservations about this pope. Some still do. A nun, a dear friend given to mirth, boundless energy and wise words to help me balance family and career, had provided a musical theme for our trip: “We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Rome.” She said the words had been running through her head. Most of us were in our 30s, filled with spiritual energy from Marriage Encounter weekends and Vatican II-inspired love for the church. We were accompanied in presence and in singing by a young priest dubbed “Father Guitar.”

As the pope’s 1999 visit to St. Louis approached, I interviewed many of the people from that caravan. A few were going to see the pope again. Most were not. Some who were children in ’79 have since joined other Christian churches. Several former pilgrims had been dissuaded by what the Post-Dispatch later labeled a “Chicken Little atmosphere,” marked by repeated pre-visit warnings of huge crowds and possibly extreme cold. (It turned out to be sunny and spring-like in St. Louis on Jan. 26 and 27, making local heroes out of the so-called Pink Sisters, a contemplative group that had prayed for weeks for such a favor.)

“It would be fine if they would send somebody to pick us up,” said Ron Sczepanski, a devoted Catholic whose travels of the past few years have taken him and his wife, Audrey, to every continent except Antarctica. “They painted a very bleak picture.”

Just a few intrepid souls from our caravan had resolved to close the loop between John Paul’s first U.S. trip and what would surely be his last. They included Evan Schaeffer, the eldest of our offspring. In October of 1979 he was 16. Now 35, with three children of his own, he had agreed to accompany his firstborn, 9-year-old Lydia, to the papal Mass at St. Louis’ indoor football stadium, the Trans World Dome.

It struck me as a powerful sign of just how long Pope John Paul II has been pope. It also struck me as a powerful symbol of the faith being passed.

We decided to go together, Evan, Lydia and I, along with Sarah Bernard, 34, our now-married second-born. Going as an extended family to the St. Louis Mass posed obstacles, as tickets were distributed by lottery and by parish. But we had worked it out.

* * *

What had moved Sarah most in 1979, what had moved most of the children then, according to their current memories, was the bigness of it all.

“I remember the whole friendship thing,” said Elizabeth Grace, who was 9-year-old Elizabeth Nedwek at the time. Ellen Schaeffer, our youngest, then 8, recalled it being “kind of like Woodstock ... touchy feely and warm, though cold and rainy,” she said. “I remember the spirit.”

Over dinner recently in St. Louis, Barb Beckermann -- eighth-grader Barbara Perry in 1979 -- recalled the long walk in the dark to the Mass site that year. “Then it started getting light,” she said. “I saw all of these people walking in the same direction, and I realized I was part of something really big.”

Renewal of that communal spirit in her own hometown was what Sarah was anticipating in early January. Before the pope arrived she had a dream. “I was talking on my cell phone from the papal Mass to a woman who was saying she’d decided not to go this time, but she might go next year. ‘But you don’t understand,’ “ Sarah told her in the dream. “ ‘This is never going to happen again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.’ ”

The hours spent waiting for the pope’s arrival at the stadium were a chance to reflect, with no small amount of grandmotherly affection, that Lydia is rich in blessings. Her treasury includes brains, an enterprising spirit, wholesome good looks, a devoted extended family and the hard-driving lawyer and writer father who had brought her to the papal Mass.

Evan shared with me his youthful recollections of the trip to Des Moines, carefully recorded in his journal. “I guess the Mass was all right,” he wrote. “We were pretty far away, so mostly all I could do was listen. It is something you remember all your life though.” He also recalled, when pressed, being amused “when a whole bunch of bishops,” not to mention the pope, emerged from a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter.

Today he was giving Lydia a chance to bank memories of her own. Collaborating in adventure, father and daughter had groaned over, then brushed aside pre-visit warnings of an endurance test. After all, endurance had also been needed in Des Moines. Not only was there the eight-hour drive both ways, there were hours of waiting in a wet chill. We fended off rain with large green garbage bags being sold by a local entrepreneur and worn like long gowns by the grateful multitudes.

In St. Louis, rather than sprawling on a hillside, we had premium indoor seats. By parking at Sarah’s workplace and hiking across downtown, we avoided boarding buses in the middle of the night, as most Mass-goers had been persuaded to do. Logistics were so complex, parking predicted to be so scarce and security so tight in St. Louis for the two days of the pope’s visit that the city’s schools and many large businesses closed.

* * *

Lydia is nobody’s fool. Last year, with the age-appropriate world-weariness of an 8-year-old, she responded impatiently to my query about her religion classes. Distraught that administrators had insisted she enroll with second-graders rather than with her third-grade peers (because she hadn’t made her first Communion), she rolled her eyes and sighed. “We’re just learning all about God and grace, Nana,” she said with a shrug suggesting that she had moved beyond such trivialities. “Stuff I already know.”

What Evan hoped to impart to Lydia by taking her to the papal Mass was a sense of the church’s dimensions. “It’s about more than the size of the event,” he said. “I want her to experience the oneness that cuts across the social and political divides of neighborhood, race and nation,” to see 100,000 Catholics “rise in unison to greet the pope,” and to hear them profess together their common creed.

The Mass was orchestral, a mix of dignity and jubilation. The time seemed much shorter, Lydia proclaimed afterward, than the seven hours we’d spent.

To pass time before the Mass began, while thousands outside passed through security checks, Lydia asked about sights on the stadium floor. Fascinated by groups of nuns in habits, she evoked a brief lesson about vows, about charisms, about rituals mostly abandoned. Hearing that the nuns who taught her grandfather had to shave their heads, she abandoned her usual savoir-faire. “For real?” she asked, wide-eyed.

We talked about who would occupy the special chairs around the altar. Almost surely, I said, those covered in white were for the cardinals. After a few minutes I thought to explain that cardinals were a special class of bishops who get to elect the pope. “Oh,” she said, with a sense of the synonymous that had escaped me. “I thought you meant the cardinals like Mark McGwire.” We shared a laugh together, making memories.

* * *

The pope that Lydia saw was much changed from 1979. He had been vigorous then, suggesting to many a new vitality for the church. He is stooped from age and illness now, walking slowly, speaking with a slur.

Some things, though, just don’t change. The St. Louis mainstream media joined in the general hysteria over 1999 papal events, reporting, as the press had in 1979, as if John Paul II represented the hopes of every Catholic, as if Garry Wills had never written a word. It was left mostly to the alternative press, the Riverfront Times, to air critical views. Some 500 dissenters who gathered on cathedral steps the evening before the pope’s arrival, protesting women’s exclusion from church roles, got only 6 inches of Post-Dispatch news space amid thousands celebrating John Paul’s arrival.

“We’re making a Santa Claus out of him,” one disgruntled Post-Dispatch reporter said in conversation. “Where’s the analysis of his impact on the church?”

“I think we’re mistaking the pope for the Lord himself,” grumbled another.

To some, it was a mistake easy to forgive. “I look at him like Jesus,” said Florence Cameron, 81, in a pre-visit interview. She had joined our pilgrimage in 1979.

Sue Perry, Cameron’s daughter, was more subdued. “I’m still proud of the faith,” she said. Whatever disagreements she or members of her family might have with the pope, “he calls us to a higher ideal. I don’t lose sight of that.” Perry, a hospital chaplain, and her husband, Bob Perry, a court reporter, were among the few from the 1979 event who were planning in mid-January to attend another papal Mass.

Sue and Bob’s daughter Barb Beckermann, with siblings Peggy Clodius and Jim Perry nodding in agreement, said, “It was those things we did together that make us a family and a good family. I think the faith has made us the family that we are.”

“I think he’s fascinating,” added 27-year-old Jim, who planned to see the pope in one of his parades through St. Louis. “The title, the history, -- I stand in awe of it all.”

It did seem that, as in 1979, an awful lot of people love John Paul II. His rock star-like reception at a youth rally in St. Louis was unbelievable, except to those who have seen it before. If young people are longing for heroes, many clearly have found one in him. As Andrew Greeley pointed out in a recent commentary, the fact that most U.S. Catholics don’t follow church teaching doesn’t mean they don’t love the pope. In Mexico, in St. Louis, this papal trip has been, like so many, a lovefest.

In the late 1970s, “when the church was still alive for me, I really thought the laity would be proclaiming their faith from the pulpit by now,” said Denis Hartley, who, with his wife, Penny, took some of his six kids to see the pope in ’79. But Hartley doesn’t blame the pope for the lassitude he, along with some of his children, now feels. “He’s just saying what the church has been saying all along,” Hartley said.

Others, though, blame the pope’s conservatism for their frustrations. Louise Bullock, who is preparing for a certificate in spiritual direction, admires the pope’s social teachings but doesn’t “feel as much a part of mainstream Catholicism” as she did in 1979, in part because of his views on women. During this papal visit she planned to participate only in the women’s vigil at the cathedral. “Back then I was more into rules and structures,” she said. “Now my faith means more to me than my church.”

* * *

To borrow an analogy from the pope, reported as saying that he is in the sunset of life, the adults on that 1979 journey were in the optimistic early afternoon, a time when faith burned hotter. If questions sometimes tormented, some things seemed more certain, resolution to doubt closer at hand. Like the rag-peddler in the film “Lies My Father Told Me,” we didn’t necessarily believe in miracles but we relied on them.

The intervening years have left some of us more sober, less glibly assured that all things work out for the best.

Father Guitar, the glue for our pilgrimage, left the priesthood to marry, symbol of an exodus that would deprive the church of many of its most able leaders. Incarnate Word Sr. Patricia Kelley, the ebullient nun who gave us the wizard theme, was raped and murdered eight years later in the office where she spent long hours on behalf of the city’s poor. Three years earlier, at 47, she had been honored with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s annual Humanitarian Award, the first woman to be selected by the city’s now defunct morning newspaper, following 25 men.

Jerry Lee Little, 32, a man in and out of prisons since he was 15, confessed to killing Kelley and three other women while on parole from a Missouri prison. He will spend the rest of his life in prison. Missouri juries of late, though, hew less often to the pope’s admonition at Mass in St. Louis: “Human life must never be taken away, even in the case of one who has done a great evil.”

On the 1979 trip, we celebrated Mass in our hotel room -- an intimate affair that Molly Ioannou, another of the Schaeffer clan, remembers above all because “it felt like the early church.” Some of us read from a book by Jane Howard called Families. I reported a few lines from that book in my article for the Post-Dispatch.

“I shall try to make you understand,” Howard wrote, imagining how she would address her unborn children, “that certain mysteries were meant to remain mysterious, that hellos imply farewells ... that it is well to speak plainly, and on occasion to raise your voice in song.”

Twenty years later, those lines have taken on new meaning. During Sr. Kelley’s funeral Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, where the pope would go on Jan. 27 to lead an interfaith service, the Communion hymn was one of her favorites: “Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord.” The words stuck in my throat.

Though spared tragedies in our immediate families -- most of the children who went on that 1979 pilgrimage are, by various standards, thriving today -- the parents have moved into the bittersweet late afternoon of their lives. On the best of days, light plays on a shadowed landscape. We no longer search so hard for answers. We are more tolerant of mystery. We have learned that speaking plainly, however laudable, doesn’t always get the reaction that we want.

If I raise my voice in music, it is unlikely now to herald a “wonderful wizard” in Rome, less rarely to be “Feelin’ Groovy,” another song we sang that year. Though generally more content, more willing to let mysteries remain mysterious, I am paradoxically more inclined to darker themes, like the words of the traditional American hymn that concluded Sr. Pat Kelley’s funeral Mass in 1987. These were words that, even then, I could gratefully sing:

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentations.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear its music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul;
how can I keep from singing?
* * *

As Jane Howard had noted, hellos imply farewells. Bidding farewell to Pope John Paul II at the end of his St. Louis trip brought a surge of mixed emotions.

Yes, I often long for a more progressive church, for parishes filled with the spirit of hope that this pope, ironically, both inspires and chills. I long for the reputations of loyal theologians to be restored, for the end of acrimonious disputes over the future of American Catholic universities, for inclusive language in the liturgy.

Yet history is likely to remember the globetrotting Pope John Paul II more for his summons to economic and social justice and his political achievements than for his rigidity or the pronouncements about sexual morality that have fallen on resistant ears. As Robin Wright pointed out in an article in the July 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, the former Karol Wojtyla has helped to reshape the world. A man who learned from the Nazi era, when he was part of the underground church in Poland, to speak in code to Catholics oppressed by communism, he is widely credited with speeding the demise of the Soviet bloc. Wright’s article was titled “What Would the World Be Like Without Him?” -- words actually spoken by a Lithuanian leader.

Evan noted that the enthusiastic ovations that greeted John Paul in St. Louis far surpassed the warmth of his welcome in 1979. “I guess this is a recognition of his achievements,” he said, as he and Lydia joined in the applause.

I can still hear Pope John Paul II denouncing capitalism in Edmonton, Canada, on Sept. 17, 1985. Midtrip, exhausted by the combined stresses of the pope’s schedule and my paper’s deadlines, I had overslept. I turned on the television set midmorning to hear him angrily denouncing the injustice of the global disparity of wealth. Shaking his fist, he spoke of a “final judgment” in which “the poor South shall judge this rich North.”

It remains to be seen whether the young people in America who cheer so enthusiastically for the pope will respond to his preaching against capitalism’s global excesses, reiterated on his pre-St. Louis Mexican visit. Will that message carry more impact than his much-ignored conservative stance on sexual morality? Will his social teachings affect the future as his political activism has affected the recent past?

These are accomplishments and questions that Lydia and others of her generation will link to this man only when they are old enough to read deeply in history, to know that God and grace are paradoxically far more complicated, yet just as simple, as they seem to her today.

Before the Mass in St. Louis, Sarah, Lydia and I visited the concessions. I bought Lydia a rosary. Although I rarely pray the rosary myself, I thought it was the most enduring of the available souvenirs. “Let’s get it,” I said, overcoming her hesitancy. “It will be blessed at a papal Mass, You will show it to your children and your grandchildren when you tell them about this event.”

It was a gesture Sr. Patricia Kelley, a thoroughly progressive nun, would have approved.

The responsorial psalm at the Mass, “Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord,” harked back to her funeral Mass. This time the words did not stick in my throat. “As the family goes, so goes the nation,” the pope would say in his homily. Sitting beside Lydia, beside two adults, our offspring, who continue to care about the faith, how could I not join in?

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999