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Cover story

It’s pope as pop star in youth rally

NCR Staff
St. Louis

It felt like a rock concert, with a daylong series of opening acts met with the customary polite indifference or mild interest, all but a prelude to the big moment when the star hits the stage. And when Pope John Paul II appeared at the entrance, he was greeted by 22,000 teenagers cheering, screaming and crying.

The clicking of cameras and the accompanying flashes sparkled through the arena and added to the din. The swell of cheers would briefly mutate into a chant -- “John Paul Two, we love you!” -- that dissipated into hysteria with a wave of his hand.

The youth rally that had preceded the pope’s early evening appearance at the Kiel Center in St. Louis featured prayers, speeches and Christian rock artists, all driving home the messages to stay true to your faith and to stay chaste. But when a midday prayer service’s final words were cut off by cheers as the audience watched the jumbo screens as Pope John Paul II descended from the airplane at the St. Louis airport, it was clear who this event was about.

As one young man had said earlier in the day, “He’s like second, next to God.”

Some groups of teenagers had left their hometowns in Missouri and nearby states before dawn for this pilgrimage, as many described it. Busloads arrived at the city’s riverfront in the morning and unloaded them at the St. Louis Gateway Arch, feeding them into a line that waited for the “Walk in the Light” -- a one-mile march from the Arch through downtown St. Louis to the Kiel Center.

Mary Hanlon, 16, of Springfield, Ill., was among the many anticipating a “once in a lifetime experience.”

Dawn Johnson, her classmate at Lanphair Catholic High School, agreed, adding that the opportunity to see this pope was not likely to arrive again: “He probably won’t be alive much longer.” They said they saw it as a chance to strengthen their faith.

“I wanted to learn more about Catholicism and meet other Catholics,” said their companion, Jessie Lindsay, 18. “I came to learn about [the pope] and why everyone is so excited about him.”

Slowly, the line that snaked past the Old Cathedral, around the Arch and across the adjacent park shuffled forward and by 10 a.m. was well on its way in the crisp January air and bright sunshine.

Farther ahead, the march grew less congested and the ranks of souvenir sellers grew -- as did the ranks of leafleters, who distributed primarily evangelical Christian tracts explaining the various misdirections of the Catholic faith.

“Neither of those is Catholic!” a passing man warned those inspecting their free literature. “Be careful. This is junk!”

Youth rally and ‘Papal Plaza’

The closer to the Kiel Center, the thicker was the litter of discarded tracts cluttering the gutters. The procession forked off when it reached its destination. To the left went the lucky thousands with tickets to the “Light of the World” Youth Gathering in the Kiel Center. They would see the pope in person. To the right walked the rest, to the “Papal Plaza,” where all-day festivities would culminate in watching the pope on the outdoor jumbo screens. That would not necessarily satisfy all the faithful. One woman roamed the plaza wearing a sign that said, “If St. Jude sent you with an extra ticket, here I am!”

But others were grateful for what the plaza had to offer -- a festival atmosphere, live Christian bands, speakers and food stalls. They hoped for a glimpse of the pope as he made his way to the Kiel Center.

“It’s cool to see so many Catholic and Christian kids here,” said Anne Wright, 15, of Silver Bay, Minn. Wright and her friends hoped to get just a little closer to the pope, “just for his blessings,” said Chris Anderson, 16, of Two Harbors, Minn.

Inside the Kiel Center, many of the featured speakers were Catholic speakers, but the bigger-name Christian bands -- the Supertones, Rebecca St. James and dc Talk -- all are non-Catholics. Music dominated the day at the center. Emcee Steve Angrisano was joined by fellow Catholic singer Tom Booth in leading the crowd in sing-alongs, complete with hand gestures to dramatize the lyrics.

Booth, the director of music for the Life Teen movement, was commissioned to compose a theme song for the youth rally. His contribution, “Cry the Gospel,” was sung numerous times throughout the day. “Say not that you are too young,” Booth sang, answered by the 600-youth choir and, gradually, more and more audience members: “We are holy. We are strong!”

Even teens who were not fans of Christian rock music were pleasantly surprised by the entertainment value of the rally. “I thought it was going to be boring until 6:00,” said Colleen West, 18. She and two friends, Kristin Weyman and Frank O’Brien, from the parish of St. Gerard’s in the St. Louis archdiocese, had been listening to the music while playing cards in the hallway of the arena.

The bands, they said, were “real bands” and better than most Christian music. “They’re religious, but not religious to the point of being corny,” said O’Brien, 17. “It’s nothing like, ‘Oh my God, I have to run out and buy it,’ ” he added. “But it’s good for this,” said West.

The three were among the hundreds of groups of teenagers, peppered with monks, priests, nuns in habits and other adults, that filled the arena’s circular hallway throughout the day. Makeshift confessional booths lined the halls, and they had lines, though not as long as the lines for concessions and souvenirs.

A middle-aged woman stopped groups, handed out religious medals and led them in portions of the rosary. She was accompanied by a teenage boy carrying a giant poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He had the resigned look of the forcibly enlisted.

Mounted TV screens showed a cardinal bopping his head to a rapping monk performing inside the arena. Meanwhile, meetings and hugs occurred right and left. “I’m seeing people I haven’t seen since grade school,” Weyman said.

‘Strange’ but ‘beautiful’ time

For Oscar Negrete, a 31-year-old Colombian attending Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., the rally was “strange and different.” He said he expected something more spiritual, “but this is very beautiful.”

“I think the young people are happy with the program,” said his fellow seminarian, Gilberto Vallejo, 34, of Mexico. “It is necessary because the pope won’t arrive until 6 p.m.” But he admitted, “I don’t like the music. It’s too noisy.”

Vallejo was basking in the glow of the pope’s visit to his own country just days before. “I’m happy because my country received the pope with all its heart,” he said.

Negrete was concerned that not all in the crowds at the rally were there for spiritual growth. “Many people are here because it’s news,” he said. “Many people are coming here like tourists. But there are people here to hear the pope open his heart.”

Vallejo added, “I think the young people here are waiting for a message from the pope, and some people will change their life. Maybe more young people will look for God in the Catholic church.”

Both said that in their countries, youth are nearer to the church, and more informed about the church’s teachings.

Despite the fervor at the youth rally, West and her friends agreed that most U.S. young people aren’t that interested in religion. “Most Catholics I know didn’t come,” West said, even though tickets for the rally were still available at her parish. O’Brien said that for his peers, “it’s more a here and now thing -- what do I want right now. Eventually, people end up going back [to church] when they realize there are more important things than partying.”

The three acknowledged that they were not wholly countercultural in this sense. They all said they were “kind of in the middle” -- not really religious, but still considering faith to be a part of their lives. West also said that though her faith is important, “I don’t necessarily believe in everything the Catholic church stands for ... I’m definitely pro-choice,” she said. And learning what the Catholic church teaches can be a challenge in itself, they said. The religion classes they have taken are “not very informative,” O’Brien said.

West said, “The themes heard are ‘no sex before marriage’ and ‘no abortion,’ but you don’t hear about the smaller topics,” such as the pope’s statements against consumerism.

“You hear something about materialism at Christmas, but that’s it,” West said.

Whether young Catholics pay attention to what they are taught -- particularly about premarital sex -- depends on the circles you run in, O’Brien said. “One circle of my friends is very orthodox Catholic -- they believe everything the church teaches,” he said. “The other group doesn’t care what the church says about it. It’s just decided on a person-by-person basis.”

Whatever differences in beliefs they may have with John Paul II, it did not dim their admiration of the man, whom O’Brien called a role model of humility and compassion. “It’s especially great to have him come to our own city,” West said, “and to see not just a United States leader, but a world-renowned figure.”

The three packed up their playing cards and other belongings and joined the crowds moving into the arena for the final hour of waiting. As the remaining empty seats filled, the youth orchestra’s drummer pounded out a rhythm for “John Paul Two, we love you.” Shots of the approaching popemobile on the jumbo screens brought up swells of deafening cheers.

“We just got the sign -- one minute!” Angrisano said. Then: “His Holiness is now in the building!” With anticipation built to a fever pitch, the place exploded when the pope was motored down the aisle.

The prayer service that followed was punctuated by cheers and the occasional lone voice screaming out, “We love you!” When the pope acknowledged the cheers with a smile, it set off the screaming again.

Not the most reverent prayer service ever held, but then rock concerts aren’t especially reverent. And once John Paul left the stage and the stomping and chanting began again, it was almost disappointing he didn’t grace his fans with an encore.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999