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A weakened pope with strong words

By NCR Staff

Bowed, with a shuffling walk, his left hand shaking and his speech slurred, his face mostly devoid of expression, Pope John Paul II was in most respects the antithesis of the cultural icons who normally fill the stadiums and arenas that accommodate a papal tour.

Yet, they came, the faithful, his fans young and old. They packed the venues where the youthful and the beautiful are often on display. And he wowed them while speaking words that, in themselves, are jarringly out of place in these stadiums and arenas.

By the time Pope John Paul II had departed St. Louis’ Lambert Airport Jan. 27 for the return trip to Rome, this universal teacher had run through a forceful review of the themes set out during numerous visits in the past.

Beginning in Mexico on Jan. 22 with a ringing appeal for justice for the poor and marginalized and concluding in St. Louis with a powerful denunciation of the death penalty, John Paul repeatedly urged renewed vigilance by Catholics in defending life along its entire spectrum.

In St. Louis, during a liturgy in front of tens of thousands in the Trans World Dome, the pope said the church’s program of new evangelization in the Americas called for Christians who were “unconditionally pro-life.”

“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,” he said. “Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary,” he said, using some of the strongest language he has yet employed to condemn capital punishment.

That appeal seemed to bear immediate fruit when Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted the death sentence of convicted murderer Darrell Mease Jan. 28, one day after John Paul departed. Mease had been scheduled to die during the pope’s visit, but the date was pushed back to Feb. 10.

Now, however, Mease will serve life without parole. In commuting the sentence, Carnahan said that although he still supports the death penalty, he commuted Mease’s sentence because of “deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all he represents.”

The pope also called on the church to help put an end to every form of racism, saying U.S. bishops have identified it as one of the nation’s most persistent and destructive evils.

The pope’s sermon emphasized the need to protect the family and promote the “gospel of life” in a variety of areas. “As believers, how can we fail to see that abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide are a terrible rejection of God’s gift of life and love?” he said.

The 78-year-old pope, who has visited the United States on six previous occasions, demonstrated his talent for exploiting local symbols and language both to make points and endear himself to the audience.

After arriving Jan. 25, the pope invoked the “Spirit of St. Louis,” reminded Americans of the Dred Scott case, praised the baseball heroics of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and recalled the importance of the Louisiana Purchase.

After the Dred Scott case was heard in St. Louis in the mid-1800s, the pope noted, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that nearly an entire class of people, those of African descent, had no constitutional rights. It was a case that spurred the antislavery movement and eventually helped reverse racial segregation, he said.

That lesson needs to be remembered today, he said, when the unborn, the terminally ill and others considered “unuseful” risk losing legal protection.

At a youth rally, the pope met briefly with McGwire and spoke about the excitement of the 1998 home-run race.

When his youthful hosts brought him a hockey uniform with his name on it, he flipped his cane upside down and pretended to shoot a puck. The smile on his face and the cheers that rang out said it all: This man knew his audience.

“Even though you are young, the time for action is now,” the pope told more than 20,000 youths during his talk at the Kiel Center, home to the St. Louis Blues hockey team.

“You are ready for what Christ wants of you now. He wants you -- all of you -- to be light to the world, as only young people can be,” he said.

In more somber tones, he spoke of human suffering and the darkness that exists in the world due to euthanasia, abortion, drugs and sexual abuse.

“God’s gift of life is being rejected. Death is chosen over life, and this brings with it the darkness and despair.”

Speaking slowly and emphatically, he said, “Christ is calling you; the church needs you; the pope believes in you and he expects great things of you.”

He also challenged the country at the start of his 30-hour visit, during a talk at the airport and just before a private meeting with President Clinton.

He said the United States faced a “time of trial,” stating, “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.”

A Vatican statement said that the two leaders discussed in private current challenges to peace and justice around the world.

In prepared remarks, the pope said, “My fervent prayer is that ... America will resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life.”

To choose life, he said, means rejecting every form of violence: poverty and hunger, which oppress so many people; armed conflict, which increases divisions; weapons of destruction like antipersonnel mines; and other evils such as drug trafficking, racism and “mindless damage” to the environment.

During his five-day visit in Mexico, John Paul affirmed his confidence in that country and entrusted its people to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In his final remarks, he drew attention to migration. “God bless you, Mexico, as you continue to miss your children who emigrate in search of bread and work. They have also contributed to spread the Catholic faith in their new environments and to build a united and fraternal America.”

The pope also thanked the 500 prelates from other countries who participated in a ceremony that formally released a document summing up the Synod of Bishops for America.

An inter-American meeting of bishops will examine the synod document in Havana in mid-February.

In one appearance, the pope implored Mexicans and all peoples of the Americas to reverse what he called the moral disorientation of the late 20th century and to build a gospel-based society based.

“This is the only way to ward off the threat of a world and a history without a soul, proud of its technical conquests but lacking hope and deeper meaning,” he said.

“Because some powerful people have turned their backs on Christ, this century watches helplessly as millions of human beings die of hunger, even if, paradoxically, food and industrial production has increased,” the pope said.

The “widening abyss” between rich and poor in the world is another sign of moral failure, he said.

Church officials from Mexico’s conflict-ridden state of Chiapas expressed satisfaction with John Paul’s remarks on indigenous rights and with the document from the synod.

Dominican Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte, vicar for justice and peace in the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese in Chiapas, said in a news conference Jan. 25 that the pope’s remarks and the synod document were an affirmation of the work of the church in San Cristóbal.

“It’s a beautiful gift to hear the pope once again insisting on the importance of the option for the poor, courage for the indigenous people and the defense of human rights,” he said.

In response to questions from reporters, 74-year-old Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of San Cristóbal de las Casas said indigenous people, “as subjects in history,” are transforming the Americas.

In his sermon at Mass at the capital’s Hermanos Rodriguez racetrack Jan. 24, Pope John Paul called for justice for Mexico’s estimated 13 million indigenous people.

This story is based on reports from NCR staff and Catholic News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999