Pope and Circumstance

St. Louis turns out to greet John Paul II

A former editor, some variety of Protestant, once remarked that St. Louis is the only city in America where it is socially acceptable to be Catholic. Last week, being Catholic in St. Louis was not merely acceptable, it was downright enviable. The fact that Pope John Paul II, the longest reigning pontiff of the 20th century, was in our city, was a rallying point for many Catholics. For some, the pending event had the effect of rekindling ecumenical zeal. Fallen-away Catholics, fired up at the thought of a live confrontation with the pope, were suddenly wondering about the availability of tickets to the papal events. If it's the pope celebrating Mass, we thought, well, we might even do confession and actually take communion -- for the first time in years. The church doesn't care whether you come to the altar out of sincerity or hypocrisy, so long as you return to the fold.

"It's so nice out," uttered one rapt spectator at the World Youth Gathering on the papal plaza last Tuesday. "I guess those little pink sisters did their job." She was referring to the Pink Sisters -- the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters -- a convent of cloistered nuns who for weeks in advance of the papal visit had prayed for clement weather. The nuns' heavenly petition was seemingly granted with two gorgeous days that belonged in April rather than January. Was it dumb luck or divine intervention? No one really knows, but there may be a future for the sisters' unique services with the Cardinal organization.

However, the climatological reverse may have occurred back in 1966 when the Beatles came to St. Louis to perform at Busch Stadium. The Fab Four arrived here not long after John Lennon's sacrilegious pronouncement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. Veteran radio personality Johnny Rabbitt, who claims to have introduced the Beatles to St. Louis in 1963, was on the scene at the stadium: "It certainly irritated a lot of people that this was said, and I have no idea who instigated it (praying for inclement weather), but I do remember a motion to call on the gods, as it were, to somehow spoil their performance. And, as it happened, it just poured during their show. The weather was absolutely dismal." In the end, the power of prayer cuts both ways.

Mayor Clarence Harmon wanted to make it perfectly clear, every day, how friggin' fantastic it was to have John Paul II in the River City. Well, that wasn't the term he used. On Day One, a mayoral news release had hizzoner saying the arrival of the pope was "the most important two-day period in St. Louis history." On Day Two, the mayor's statement described the Mass in the Trans World Dome as "a dramatic uplift of humanity" that "elevated those in attendance and those who watched to new heights in personal spirituality and a renewed compassion for brotherly love (our italics)." Hey, too bad the Catholic big kahuna didn't sprinkle some holy water on ConnectCare, the city's troubled program for the medically indigent. Maybe next time.

Gushing with unbridled exuberance, more than 1,000 youth danced to the Christian rock bands onstage at the papal plaza Tuesday afternoon. A hip-looking priest served as MC, proselytizing from the stage between songs such as "I Will Choose Christ" and "One Heart at a Time." But the music died when Shepherd One hit the tarmac at Lambert International, and the focus of attention turned to a pair of large, portable video units -- JumboTrons -- as the giant screens played out the spectacle of President Bill Clinton introducing the pope, much as a parolee might introduce his parole officer. Speculation among the gathered ran rampant: During their private meeting, would Clinton confess to the Holy Father? Better yet, would the pope grant Clinton absolution for his indiscretions? "That will be 10,000 Hail Marys and 40,000 Our Fathers, my son. Now go in peace."

Then it was the pope's turn to speak. It was the first time we heard his voice, and we strained to make out the words: "God bless St. Louis! God bless America!" We heard that much, at least. It was an inspirational homily, brimming with goodwill even if the pontiff, with his thick Old World accent, did sound remarkably like Don Vito Corleone. As the pope spoke, his words were displayed on the JumboTron. Unfortunately, the transcription was godawful. Every third word was butchered -- for example, "sell braits" for celebrate. Not only that, but the syntax was horribly jumbled; One passage read, " ... the needs of others the family the great of your happy." Despite the confusion, the pope's message evoked tremendous applause.

Just after Tuesday's motorcade along Lindell Boulevard, we caught a psychiatrist, winding down at the 34 Club on Euclid Avenue, who mentioned that all psychiatric residents were on standby for the papal stopover. An event of this magnitude, especially so close to the millennium, tends to attract every nutjob within a 500-mile radius -- not the doctor's exact words. She did say: "I'm all for people having religious experiences, but when your religious experience entails stripping down and running along Lindell in the buff in front of the popemobile, we need to talk."

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