Pondering St. Louiss papal priorities
By JEANNETTE BATZ
When members of St. Louis new Center for Theology and Social Analysis told me what they were planning for the popes visit, I felt like Id gulped coffee sugared with the salt cellar.
These were people I knew to be devoutly liberal Catholics, quick to defend the vulnerable and critique the power structure. Sure, I knew they didnt want to be confrontational or mar the popes visit. But asking people, If you were the pope, how would you spend your time in St. Louis? smacked of those patronizing, man-on-the-street interviews TV does after Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. I was convinced it would only elicit humble, folksy, insipid responses from The People, most of whom were already dazed by the imminent grandeur of the papal visit.
I had underestimated The People.
The first response that came back was from Luis, a 13-year-old Hispanic immigrant.
I would tell City Hall that I was going to visit streets like Shenandoah and California, and City Hall would rush out and clean up those streets. I would tell them that I was going to visit the schools, and then City Hall would clean up the schools and put in air conditioners.
I thought of Luis later, when the road crews ignored the rest of the city to clear ice from the papal route two weeks in advance (dumping it at an abandoned public hospital site). By then, a cable company was promising to light up the Arch so it would look better on nighttime TV. And a local designer had gussied up the interior of the vehicle that would ferry the pope from his aircraft to a hangar, using the official color palate of the papal visit, yellow and light blue, in a way that nicely picks up the colors of his holiness personal banner.
The kids had better priorities.
I would visit the poor people and try to explain what God means and that He is their father and created them, and then I would try to get them some benefits. -- David, 14
Just the outstanding expenses of the 36-hour papal visit, after public and private institutions and the archdiocese had forked over undisclosed amounts, were estimated at $5.2 billion. And with all that money flying about, private enterprise was hopping.
Everybody wanted a piece of the pope.
There was papal kitsch, papal jewelry (approved by the Vatican yet) and papal wine. The Postal Service offered a pictorial papal postmark from the papal plaza. Entrepreneurs went to incredible lengths to transport supplies so they could set up booths downtown and sell, sell, sell.
Because I have spoken out so strongly against materialism, I should not have allowed such wealth to be spent on preparations for my visit. In penance for the sin of this waste, I would spend the day in prayer, invite others to join me and direct Archbishop [Justin] Rigali to send an amount equal to that spent on my visit to the Patriarch of Iraq for assistance to the civilian victims of the bombing. -- Angie, 51
By early January, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was averaging five stories a day about Pope John Paul II. There were hard-news headlines like, Pink Sisters Pray That the Sun Shines on the Pope, St. Louis TV Stations Will Provide Much Live Coverage and Popes Main Route Is Rich in History.
This week, its just another city street, one front-page story opened. But next week, the six-mile stretch of Lindell and Olive Street becomes Americas street. Really? For all the Jews and atheists and Muslims, too?
Ah, well. At least it was good to know that the one man on earth capable of stopping a U.S. city in its tracks was a religious leader. Not a head of state or finance, not an Internet whiz, not a sports or rock celebrity but a man who constantly reminds us that all of that is transient, limited, insufficient.
I only wish he had the time to make his point. The papal schedule: Three motorcades, one Mass, an appearance at a youth rally, greetings to government dignitaries and a lunch with cardinals and bishops.
I would not stay sheltered among the believers but go with the people who are really in need of the Lord -- the materialistic. -- Lilian, 62, an immigration attorney
I started to imagine what would happen if the pope sat down with CEOs of the most environmentally, socially damaging multinationals and gently asked them what their work means. Then I heard the next batch of survey responses, and my fantasies grew wilder. What if he did meet with fallen-away Catholics and listen to them? What if he did spend most of his day visiting and studying African-American churches, the centers of so much urban tragedy and hope? What if he did spend just half an hour at a gay bar and really saw the pain and self-hatred in the eyes of former Catholics? Would any of that change us or change him?
I would rent a big place and have a party with great food and a DJ, I would not wear that white outfit. I would put on jeans and really enjoy myself. -- Myrrah, 15
Our city shouldnt have tried to wear its white outfit, either. Because the minute we donned our finest raiment, societys soiled undergarments showed through. The archdiocese had to sue to halt a papalvisit 1999 Web site mined with papal sex scandals and pornography links. Musicians of the St. Louis Symphony found themselves barred from performing at the papal Mass because their union fee scale required the full-symphony rate of $90,000. A murderer who was scheduled to be executed on the day of the popes visit found his death penalty rescheduled for after the popes departure and then commuted to life in prison without parole.
I would ride with the police to all the places where people are afraid and try to make it safe for them. I would make sure that women were treated the same as men. Then there would be nothing to fuss about. -- Manuel, 13
Id visit little girls and tell them I will work so that, when they grow up, they can be anything they want to be, even pope! Id visit women religious and apologize for how the church has devalued their service. -- Joan, 60-something, a Catholic theologian
Ah, but the important role of religious women was honored in the papal coverage. Nuns Bake, Count 130,000 Communion Hosts received top news placement. Many hands make light work, one of the contemplative nuns assured the reporter.
I am not mocking the communal baking. That, and the kids who planted trees because the pope loves to hike in the woods, were two rare signs of genuine hospitality, and they shone by comparison with the rest. How does a friendly Midwestern city welcome someone we all admire and honor, and extend our famous hospitality to make him feel at home? We buy a bunch of stuff for ourselves, so we can remember we got to see him. We let entrepreneurs create business ventures that mock his thoughtful critique of consumerism. We invite only wealthy and powerful civic leaders to serve on the papal committee.
Id visit disadvantaged neighborhoods and homeless shelters and city schools and be so heartbroken at seeing so many hungry, lonely, forgotten children that Id immediately start selling off some of the churchs real estate holdings and put the money to work on the childrens behalf. Then, on the plane back to Rome, Id seriously reconsider my position on birth control. -- Tony, 44
That one gave me pause. Am I just bitter because I, too, disagree with some of the popes views? How would I react to all the hoopla if I agreed wholeheartedly? Itd be fun, wouldnt it, to have something to celebrate at full throttle, something that could make this landlocked, humdrum city glow with pride?
I dont know.
Somehow, I cant imagine St. Louis reacting this way to Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. I cant even imagine us reacting this way to Jesus.
The hoopla has something to do with power, Im afraid. Its about tradition and moral authority and reaching the pinnacle of a vast hierarchy.
Id meet with all the religious dignitaries and leaders in the city. Then Id have a big Mass so a lot of people could come. I would do all this because that is what people expect. -- Donna, 44
Is it? Maybe the pope is truly being our servant, ministering to us in the way that makes us feel safest. We do bask in the glorying of him. And because he is an icon, all we need to do is focus on his identity, his kind face, his eloquent gestures. The media spilled gallons of ink on the pope; they lit large rooms with their electronic coverage of his visit. But they did not examine -- not with any depth, and often not at all -- the popes carefully developed stances on various issues. Long before the scheduled visit, the St. Louis archbishop assured a reporter that the pope wouldnt be saying anything new when he was here.
And now hes gone. Lindells back to being an old street lined, on alternate blocks, with mansions and pawn shops. The Arch, dull without its spotlights, blends into the sky again. And weve got some spare time to figure out what it all meant -- and whether it changed us.
Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.
National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999