Pope and Circumstance

St. Louis turns out to greet John Paul II

Feb 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
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."

Well, that never happened, but it's too bad the good doctor or one of her colleagues wasn't on hand to do some counseling a few hours later. It happened about 5:30 p.m., in front of the high-rise at Newstead and Lindell. As the wind picked up and night fell, the throng waiting for the pope's egress from the archbishop's residence were treated to a bizarre outburst. A fellow about 30 years old stepped out into the street -- a zillion cops and security personnel all around -- and began jabbering, "The pope will be shot this night. The pope will die tonight." Bystanders stared in disbelief. When they say there's one in every crowd, they're not kidding. Police whisked the troubled fellow away faster than you could say, "Et cum spiritu tuo."

Police Chief Ron Henderson, a hard man to miss anyway, was upfront when the media needed reassurance that everything was under control but "Gee-this-is-the-biggest-thing-since-Lucky-Lindy-came-back-from-Paris." Asked by a reporter from Fox News (Channel 2) what it was like when he was introduced to the pope by Archbishop Justin Rigali, Big Ron said, "I told him I wasn't ready for heaven right now but to keep me in mind."

Some used the pope's visit to air issues of conscience. Near the St. Louis Cathedral on Tuesday, two young men stood out in the crowd. Attired in Middle Eastern garb -- caftans and headdresses -- Carl McConnell and Chris Woodworth were trying to draw attention to "the wanton killing of Middle East civilians by the U.S. military." As protests go, this one was somewhat half-baked: They didn't even have signs; you had to ask them what they were about. "This is my church," said McConnell, motioning to the hulking gray facade of the cathedral. "I go every Sunday, but I have a problem with killing innocent people ... there are smart bombs, but they do hit nonsoldiers, people whose only crime was to be born under the regime of a maniacal dictator. And the pope preaches compassion, so we thought.... "

Conversely, two members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were oh-so-conspicuous in the throng waiting in anticipation of the pope's emergence after Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral on Wednesday. One, dressed as a cow, held a sign reading "Meat Is Murder"; the other (O-bil the Ishmaelite or a very creepy Rasputin -- take your pick) held a sign saying "Thou Shalt Not kill -- Go Vegan." But the man-cow was so out of place and the pair so hungry for attention, preening for any tourist with a ready camera, that the protest lost steam and got filed as "Minor Papal Incident No. 542" in the Secret Service reports.

Several reports had city employees rousting squirrels out of their nests near the makeshift papal plaza around 13th and Pine streets. Other talk was that pigeons had been poisoned, even that squirrels had been killed, so that the papists who gathered there that Tuesday wouldn't be encumbered by furry-tailed rodents or flying feces. For the pope's part, he did what he could to save a convicted murderer -- too bad he wasn't like St. Francis, a friend to all things living. Squirrels and pigeons didn't make the cut.

As the Curtis Mayfield song warned us more than 20 years ago, "If there's a hell below, we're all gonna go." Pope John Paul II said much the same thing in an indirect way during his homily at the Trans World Dome on Wednesday. His line about the family drew the loudest and most sustained applause of the eight-page, double-spaced text from which he read. Slowly. In fact, Wednesday was probably the first time the dome was filled and nobody booed. After telling the crowd that the family was the "primary and most vital foundation of society," he added, "As the family goes, so goes the nation!" In the United States, that's not such good news, considering that an estimated 500,000 children are in foster care (with more than 50,000 of them legally free to be adopted and waiting for adoptive parents) and that the divorce rate doubled from the mid-'60s to the 1970s and has leveled off at that high rate, with more than a million divorces yearly.

Souvenirs abounded along the parade routes. Sanctioned vendors offered "official" papal pins, T-shirts, rosaries, medallions and posters. There was no excuse to not score scads of pope stuff. T-shirts, for example, were $10 on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, the final day of the visit, they were two for $12 or four for $20.

A tent set up across from the archbishop's residence at Lindell Boulevard and Taylor Avenue had all manner of memorabilia for sale, ranging from a $40 blue short-sleeved polo shirt to $15 T-shirts to $2 prayer cards. Two styles of rosaries were offered: One, a "millennium" rosary with different-colored beads representing the five populated continents, went for 25 bucks; for $5 less you could get what the vendor called "just a Sacred Heart rosary," though he was quick to add, "but it's made in Italy." For devotees who wanted something less material, something they could use to save their souls or at least have a less dreary afterlife, a nearby table was stocked with free paperback books, including How to Avoid Purgatory. Seven means to avoid that place of temporary postmortem punishment were listed, ranging from "Suffering" (ugh) to "Extreme Unction," the Catholic sacrament that, if "devoutly received, prepares the dying Christian for immediate entrance into Heaven." (Bingo!)

In the weeks before the scheduled visit, papal wine sold briskly at select locations. Jason Craig with the Vintage Room on McPherson Avenue says the wine shop has sold 23 cases of a 30-case allotment since Halloween. What is the reaction when people first see the product? "They say, 'You're kidding me!'" Craig says. "They think it's a joke. Then, when they find out it's not, they buy anywhere from two bottles to -- I had a lady buy two cases." The pope's wines come in two varieties: a light, dry red table wine and a dry, crisp white table wine. "Since the first Vatican jubilee in 1300 under Pope Boniface VIII, pilgrims began to bring this wine to St. Peter's Basilica," reads the certificate of authenticity attached to each bottle. "It is the only wine label of the Basilica," and "each bottle has been individually blessed as per progressive number herewith printed." For $8.99, we purchased individually blessed bottle No. 0042024, the red table variety. It was heavenly. But does the pope himself partake of this libation? "Sure," says Craig. "Either this or Christian Brothers Brandy."

After the Mass in the Trans World Dome, a woman driving a minivan stopped in the middle of the intersection of Broadway and Chestnut Street and sought directions from a traffic cop. He stopped waving his hand long enough to say, "I don't know, ma'am. I'm not from around here." Apparently the helmeted cop was one of the hundreds of out-of-town gendarmes who came into St. Louis to handle the "crowds," which in many cases didn't materialize.

"I'm as excited to see the popemobile as I am the pope," one fellow on the parade route was overheard saying. What to think about the improbable configuration of the popemobile? A cross between a Mercedes sedan and a golf cart, it seems so ... ungainly, not something you would want to be in if you were trying to outrun the cops. On five occasions in two days the pope was seen cruising along city streets in the popemobile. Spectators who presumed the papal procession might creep along at the pace of a Mardi Gras float were deeply disappointed. In fact, the pope's entourage zoomed along at a brisk pace of 35-40 mph, making it difficult for a sniper to draw a bead on the vehicle. Yes, the popemobile is already bulletproofed, and it probably has some cool James Bond-type gadgets -- a rocket ejector seat, perhaps -- to thwart bad guys, but who can take chances? If anything happened to John Paul II while he was here, St. Louis would be stigmatized well into the next millennium. Still, this going-too-fast was a huge letdown to the many folks who had waited two, four, six hours to catch the merest glimpse of the man. People talked in terms of how many seconds they were able to see the passing pontiff. Some had the thrill of making actual visual contact with the personage in the glass bubble. "He looked directly at me as he passed," noted Rosalie Knight, a grade-school teacher. "He smiled and lifted his arm in a sort of wave -- I'll never forget it."

As if the speeding popemobile whizzing by spectators wasn't enough, the final insult, or slight, to the masses occurred at the hangar before Pope John Paul II ascended back to Rome -- OK, he used a plane. Several thousand young folks had gathered and waited for the pontiff to show, but when he did, it seemed mostly to be for a backstage photo op with Vice President Al Gore (finally, compared to Gore, the aged, Parkinson's-plagued pope looked positively animated.) Does this mean Gore won't have to go to the pope's funeral? After sitting next to him for what seemed about five minutes, Gore then led the pope around by the hand to hobnob with the likes of Donna Shalala and other, less-well-known personages. Being that the pope was running behind schedule, the young ones gathered were not able to sing the song they had prepared for Il Papa. Maybe in the next millennium.