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23-year odyssey

Toronto/Guatemala City/Mexico City

Reporters cover papal trips like the Iowa caucuses, which is to say through the optic of issues and electoral politics. We focus on what the pope says, how “sharp” or “controversial” his message is, how many people he draws, and how the crowd responds. As John Paul ages, we also note how strong or weak he looks, like White House beat reporters toward the end of the Reagan years.

It took a cold Ukrainian morning to teach me that most of those who actually turn out to see the pope have a very different agenda.

It was a Sunday in June 2001, and I was trudging across an airfield outside L’viv, the capital of the Catholic western part of Ukraine, made unbelievably muddy on this occasion by a torrential rain. A colleague and I had gone in search of umbrellas, which we hoped to purchase from a stretch of booths and stalls set up to cater to the some 600,000 pilgrims who had come from all over Eastern and Central Europe for the papal Mass. The scene was reminiscent of a medieval bazaar, with everything imaginable for sale -- toilet paper, car stereos, slippers, even small home appliances.

Everything was on sale, that is, except umbrellas. We did find a Ukrainian cop who took pity and offered me his poncho, but my ample frame overtaxed the plastic and it split apart.

After that bit of humiliation, we headed back to the press area, becoming steadily more drenched. The day was shaping up as a disaster, since the pope’s homily contained nothing that would make headlines. We were wet, miserable and stuck for a lead.

Remembering Grandpa

I plodded forward, lost in thought, when I caught sight of a 30-something woman ahead of me, kneeling alone in the mud. Her gaze was directed toward the pope, though at that distance he could only have seemed an indistinct white smudge on the horizon. The woman’s clothes were soaked, her hair a mess, her eyes whipped by wind and rain -- and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier face in my life. She had a smile that could have powered a midsize city.

Intrigued, I approached and asked if she spoke English. She did, a bit, and so I put it to her: Why the sunbeam of a grin?

“My grandfather was a Catholic priest who was murdered by the communists,” she explained. “I am thinking about what he must be feeling today, seeing the Holy Father on Ukrainian soil.”

The Greek Catholics in Ukraine, who are in communion with Rome but practice Eastern liturgies and traditions, were kicked around as badly as anyone during the Soviet era. Their church was dissolved and driven underground, many of their priests were arrested, and some were killed and tortured in grotesque ways such as being burned in oil and crucified on prison walls.

“My heart is bursting, but I feel only a tiny part of the joy that fills my grandfather,” the woman said.

The story illustrates a point: In evaluating the impact of papal trips, much depends on what you bring to the table.

This is not to say that papal trips don’t sometimes have political subtext, for good or ill. When John Paul II stood in Victory Square in Warsaw in June 1979 and told his fellow Poles, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man,” he knocked over the first domino that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When in April 1987 he administered Communion to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and then appeared with him on the balcony of La Moneda Palace, some believe he buttressed a regime blamed for the torture of some 40,000 political opponents and the “disappearance” of 4,000.

Yet this sort of political analysis, however valid, does not exhaust the significance of a papal appearance.

No one with even a passing familiarity with John Paul’s remarkable stamina believes his just-completed journey, an 11-day, three-city odyssey in Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, will be his last. On Aug. 16 he heads for four days in Poland, and Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls said aboard the papal plane July 23 that John Paul wants to accept an invitation to visit Manila in January 2003.

Nevertheless, given the pope’s physical decline, it’s a safe bet his travels will become less frequent. Hence this is perhaps a good moment to take stock, to ask what difference his peripatetic approach to his office has made.

John Paul II is so routinely referred to in news reports as a “conservative pope” that even people who should know better are sometimes tempted to believe it. His pontificate has certainly had its conservative aspects, especially on moral questions such as birth control or divorce. Yet this has also been an innovative papacy in many other ways, nowhere more so than in how he spends his time. When he left Mexico City Aug. 1 to return to Rome, John Paul had completed his 97th journey outside Italy. By way of comparison, the pope with the second-highest collection of frequent flyer miles was Paul VI. His total number of trips? Nine.

A pilgrim-messenger

The old model was that the pope stayed in the Vatican and people came to him, like an emperor receiving supplicants. John Paul, however, felt called to be a modern St. Paul, taking his show on the road in a world that had to be evangelized all over again. In any analysis of his papacy, the trips loom as one of its most original and important features.

“I am a pilgrim-messenger who wants to travel the world to fulfill the mandate Christ gave to the apostles when he sent them to evangelize all men and all nations,” John Paul II said during a visit to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in November 1982.

The commitment of time and treasure required by the pope’s journeys has always struck some as questionable. The Road Warrior papacy does not lack critics.

One frequent objection, more a matter of taste than substance, is to the pop star-style packaging that often surrounds a papal tour. When “Ale Mary” beer went on sale in Denver in 1993, or when the pope’s picture appeared inside packages of Sabritas potato chips in Mexico in 1999, many papal loyalists cringed. Should John Paul really be marketed like a rock group?

“If Jesus drove the merchants from the temple, now the pope appears to associate with them,” charged Mexican columnist Raul Trejo Delarbre in the newspaper Cronica in January 1999.

The high cost of papal mega-events has raised eyebrows over the years. No one keeps track of the total cost, but given that single stops of 24 hours run into the millions, it seems safe to guess that at least $1 billion has been spent by the Vatican, local churches, governments and private donors to fund John Paul’s 23-year road show.

When it was revealed that the pope’s November 1982 trip to Spain cost $10 million, the auxiliary bishop of Madrid, Alberto Iniesta, wrote a letter apologizing to Spanish Catholics for its “fatuousness and triumphalism.”

Moreover, paying the bills is only one index of the total cost. Another is opportunity cost -- what might John Paul have done with that 11.21 percent of his time, almost two and a half years of his pontificate, had he not been on the road? Or, what work might have been accomplished by the best and brightest of his aides if they had not been hammering out travel logistics in New Delhi or Sofia or Fátima?

Criticism of papal travel on other grounds bubbles up from both left and right.

From the left, one sometimes hears that the trips are little more than exercises in building a cult of personality around the pope, strengthening his hold on the church at the expense of local bishops. I’ve heard some cynics compare the massive World Youth Day spectacles, for example, to the Nazi Nuremberg rallies, in that both encourage youth to feel an intense, almost fanatic personal devotion to a Great Leader. The next pope should travel less, this line of criticism holds, and focus more on helping local churches solve their problems.

“I’m sorry that these visits are all show and triumphalism without the pope sitting down and talking about the needs of the people,” said Mary Louise Hartman of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, at one point in John Paul’s 1995 visit to New Jersey, New York and Baltimore.

A great showman but …

Veteran Italian journalist Giancarlo Zizola said that John Paul’s travels have given centralization of authority in the Catholic church “an unprecedented impulse and spectacularization.”

From the right, some indict John Paul II for having his heart in the right place on doctrinal issues but being weak on follow-through. He is unquestionably orthodox, they say, but he has not done nearly enough to root out the confusion and malaise from universities, chanceries and seminaries. I’ve heard this view expressed by some inside the Roman curia -- that John Paul is a great showman but a poor manager. The next pope should travel less, these folk believe, and govern more.

It is this line of thinking that led Fr. Gianni Baget Bozzo, a conservative Italian priest with close ties to the right-wing government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to complain that John Paul’s travels promote “universality at the price of ambiguity.”

During a break at World Youth Day in Toronto, I asked Cardinal Francis George of Chicago if he feels the omnipresence of the pope reduces the stature of the bishops -- if as Catholics feel a more direct personal tie to the pope, their connection with the local bishop suffers.

“That sounds like a fundamentalist telling me that if I love the Blessed Virgin Mary, I can’t love Jesus,” George said. “I don’t know too many bishops who are jealous of the pope.”

I put the same question to Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who gave a similar answer.

“When the pope was with us for 48 hours in September 1987, we took him all over -- to African-American communities, to Little Tokyo, to Chinatown,” Mahony said. “Some of those places still fly the papal flag, and lots of people still talk about the visit. It unified us as a local church, which helps me.”

Both cardinals seemed more open to the criticism that by spending so much time on the road, the pope leaves many of the day-to-day details of running the church in the hands of the curia.

“It’s going to be very important for the next pope to reinforce the pastoral dimension of the church,” Mahony said. “The curia must be at the service of local churches, not acting as supervisors or coordinators of local churches.”

As for cost, Mahony acknowledged that the pope does not come cheap. The bill for his two-day stopover in 1987 was $3.5 million. The media-savvy Mahony, however, put that figure in context by pointing out that the visit drew near-constant media coverage. Channel 5 broadcast the entire visit virtually round the clock. To buy that kind of positive publicity in the Los Angeles media market, he said, would have broken the bank.

“From our experience, the trips are win/win,” Mahony said.

Travel and tourism

Cities around the world don’t clamor to host the pope because they lose money. Denver, for example, said that it got a $100 million bump in travel and tourism from the $700,000 it spent for the pope’s 1993 visit. The New York State Department of Commerce and Economic Development concluded that a 1995 Mass at Giants Stadium, all by itself, generated $3.4 million in hotel, concessions and restaurant spending for the city, in exchange for an outlay of $800,000. St. Louis civic officials say the city made $14 million in spending by 54,000 out-of-town visitors when the pope stopped for 24 hours in January 1999. That trip’s total cost was pegged at $7 million, so the city doubled its money in one day.

There is also some evidence that papal visits pay off in pastoral terms.

In 1994, for example, one year after Denver’s World Youth Day, the archdiocese registered 2,000 converts, more than any diocese in the country. Mass attendance was up 8.05 percent, whereas before it had been falling. Enrollment in Catholic schools increased 7.72 percent. Over this period, the total number of Catholics increased only 1.76 percent, so most of these gains came from pre-existing Catholics more interested in practicing the faith.

In Ireland, applicants for the priesthood spiked by 20 percent in 1980, one year after a September 1979 papal visit. French Catholic authorities reported a similar phenomenon after John Paul’s August 1997 visit for World Youth Day.

It must be said, however, that many other nations and dioceses the pope has visited cannot point to similar concrete gains from the experience.

The pope often uses the platform afforded him by a visit to address local concerns, though how successful these interventions are is a matter of perspective.

In March 1983, for example, during a 12-hour stop in Nicaragua, he asked Catholics to take direction from their bishops rather than the Sandanistas. But halfway into his homily, shouts began. They quickly went from the ecclesiastical to the political: “We want a church that stands with the poor!” “We want peace!” “Between Christianity and the revolution there is no contradiction!” And finally: “Power to the people!” An angry John Paul three times yelled back: “Silencio!” Some observers say the divisions thrown into relief at that Mass have still not closed.

Another attempt to heal local wounds came in Canada, when the pope spoke on the sex abuse scandals. He said the harm done to children fills Catholics “with sorrow and shame,” but that the “vast majority” of priests and religious “who desire only to serve and do good” must not be forgotten.

George said that while it’s a “debatable question” whether the fruits produced by papal travel justify the cost, he suspects it does. Anyway, he said, it’s not really his opinion that matters.

“Go and ask the people,” he suggested.

That’s usually the answer defenders of papal travel give, because they know it’s a winning one. While First World critics may focus on issues of cost and image, those who turn out by the hundreds of thousands in every corner of the globe seem to evaluate the event by other criteria.

Magnet for humanity

John Paul is a magnet for humanity. His best turnouts rank among the largest crowds ever assembled. They include:

  • Manila, January 1995, 4.5 to 5 million for World Youth Day.
  • Mexico, January 1979, 10 million lined the 75-mile route from Mexico City to Puebla.
  • Mexico City, Aug. 1, 2002, some 6 million at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and along the pope’s 12-mile route to the nuncio’s residence in conjunction with the canonization of Juan Diego.

The only other events that come close, according to ABC News research, are the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival of January 2001, when 10 million people bathed in the Ganges River over 24 hours, and the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeni in June 1989 that drew 3 to 10 million. Cumulatively, more people have turned out to see John Paul II than any other figure in history.

The devotion the pope inspires is remarkable. When we lifted off from Mexico City Aug. 1, millions of people flashed mirrors toward the sky to say goodbye, so that the city literally sparkled. From the papal plane, it was a magnificent sight.

Most analysts believe that John Paul has made travel part of the job description for the papacy, so his successor will also hit the road. The next pope may travel less, however, and he may travel differently.

Mahony said that the next pope may stage fewer mega-events and spend more time listening to local Catholics, learning about their situation and helping them to identify solutions to problems. In that sense, the next pope may travel less like a pop star and more like the superior of a religious order.

Yet John Paul’s high-octane traveling circus sometimes surprises even its organizers by its fruits. Lifelong Protestant and beer magnate Peter Coors, for example, converted to Catholicism after the pope’s 1993 visit to Denver for World Youth Day. (It should be noted that his wife was Catholic and they were raising their children in the faith.)

Another example? I covered John Paul’s Sept. 23 Mass in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, which was attended almost entirely by Muslims and Orthodox, since the Catholic population of that Central Asian republic is negligible. I was struck by how enthusiastic the young Muslims seemed, so I grabbed an interpreter and started asking questions. Bear in mind that this was 12 days after Sept. 11.

Interreligious harmony

“Isn’t it strange for a Muslim to be at a religious ceremony led by the pope?” I asked. Granted, Kazakhi Muslims tend to be rather laid-back, but such interreligious harmony just 200 miles from the home of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was still rather striking.

“Oh no,” several young Muslims told me. “The pope visited us at the mosque in Damascus, so it is OK for us to be here. We are returning his gesture.”

The reference was to John Paul’s May 5 visit to the Grand Mosque of Omayyaid in Damascus, which I also witnessed. That event drew wide coverage across the Muslim world, helping ease tensions with Western Christianity.

I have interviewed American kids at World Youth Days in both Rome and Toronto. I’ve spoken to Orthodox Christians in Athens on the Acropolis as they awaited the pope, Muslims in Damascus, Greek Catholics in Ukraine, old-style Soviet atheists in Azerbaijan, and rowdy Latin American Catholics in Guatemala and Mexico. Cumulatively I’ve spoken with hundreds of people at papal Masses, and almost to a person they were enthusiastic, even rapturous.

George said there is theological value to the exposure the pope draws when he moves around the world.

“John Paul is making visible the primary emphasis of the Second Vatican Council [1962-65], which was the church in the world, not the church in the church,” he said. “John XXIII called the council because he wanted the church to be the sacrament of the unity of the human race in a new moment in history. He didn’t call the council to change the church, but the world.”

Under the impact of globalization, George said this mission of promoting global unity is especially urgent. “God chose the right moment to give us a globe-trotting pope,” he said.

Hence the ultimate question: Is it working? Is the world more unified because John Paul has circled it more than 30 times?

In the end, this too may be a matter of perspective.

When I was with the pope in Kazakhstan, I was assigned a young Kazakhi Muslim woman as an interpreter. Also on our press bus was her best friend, a Kazakhi Russian who is Orthodox Christian. As the days went by we got to know one another, and the two young women told me of their dream of opening a school for disabled children in Astana. They had seen one during a visit to the United States, and wanted to bring something similar to their own country.

Kazakhstan is known for interreligious harmony. When the first waves of Orthodox Christians arrived here under Stalin, they did so in chains, and were often saved from starvation by Muslims. Those historical memories produce a sense of common purpose, and hence the kind of friendships Galiya and Nora share are common.

I asked the two, however, if in the post-Sept. 11 context they were worried this might change, as Islamic conservatism makes gains in their part of the world.

“We are frightened,” Galiya told me. “But the pope is here, and you can see that we Muslims love him, too. This gives us hope that we can find a way to live together.”

Perhaps it’s a naive or overly optimistic assessment. But if the pope’s visit helped these two marvelous young women feel better about their friendship and their future, maybe it was worth the price of a plane ticket.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002