Getting Religion: It's Not About the Talk

"To tell you the truth, I was cynical about the pope coming here," a friend told me this week. "I'm a nonpracticing Protestant, I disagree with just about everything he says, and I thought the whole deal was over-hyped.

"But you know what? Even though my only contact was from television, I have to say I was really moved. It was really amazing how he touched people, and not just Catholics. He's a great man."

The afterglow of the papal visit is as striking as the big event itself. Regardless of whether the text of Pope John Paul II's message was embraced broadly, its spirit mesmerized believers and nonbelievers alike.

It is pretty amazing and, I think, worth dissecting a bit.
This was not an ecumenical visit by the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a leader of his particular religious faith -- and a strict one at that -- and though he made a marvelous outreach to Jews and people of other faiths as well, he was here to deliver a spiritual message to his followers (and prospective ones).

That mission was accomplished. I was at the Dome for the Mass for 100,000 or so of the pope's closest friends, and speaking as an impartial "nonbeliever," believe this: You could see really see his impact in people's eyes.

Roman Catholics, devout, less-than-devout and "fallen" alike, were gripped by Pope John Paul II. This was not just another day at church.

But what about the content of his message? Clearly, the basic teachings of the church about Jesus and love and faith resonated more loudly having come from the pope himself, but the contentious points -- the headlines, if you will -- were a different matter.

The so-called seamless garment of opposition to abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and the death penalty might be respected for its consistency, yet there's little secret that only a small minority of the faithful are persuaded by it. For all of the pope's impact here, there is little expectation of a sea change with respect to public-policy controversies.

Does it all go in one ear and out the other? Is everyone merely polite and politically correct in paying homage to the pope?

I don't think so. It's just that in a world of information overload, it's not about the words anymore.

Pope John Paul II connected with his presence. His eyes, his mannerisms -- all of his nonverbal communication -- exuded feelings of goodness and decency and steadfastness of purpose that cut through barriers of ideology, political, religious or otherwise. Especially when there were children in his sight.

The messenger was more important than the message. And the feeling was more important than the talk.

Perhaps that speaks to all the giddiness that surrounded the papal visit, including but not limited to the somewhat puzzling decision by Gov. Mel Carnahan, a death-penalty supporter, to spare the life of Darrell Mease, a confessed murderer of three, for no reason other than being asked by the pope to do so.

Substantively, it's hard to defend the randomness of this particular "act of mercy," but I suspect the extenuating circumstances will prevent it from becoming a "Willie Horton" albatross for the governor. Give this much to Carnahan: He seems to have been swept up genuinely -- as opposed to politically -- in the goodwill of the moment.

But don't expect a reprise if the Dalai Lama comes to town.
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And now, speaking of religious words and all that hype, off to the Super Bowl and to the curious case of one Eugene Robinson.

Robinson, 35, is a 15-year veteran of the National Football League and still stars at strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons. He has long been regarded as a model citizen, especially in Seattle, where he spent his first 11 years in the NFL and was widely known for his support of philanthropic causes.

Robinson is also the most outspoken Christian on the Falcons, the leader of team prayers and the author of an inspirational book called It Takes Endurance. In that book, he tells of having repeatedly pumped up then-Green Bay teammate (and noted homophobe) Reggie White, who was weary during a previous Super Bowl, by quoting Isaiah 40:31: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength."

Last Saturday, Mr. Robinson was granted the prestigious Bart Starr Award by a Christian ministry called Athletes in Action. It honors "leadership in the home, on the field and in the community." Robinson was also pictured that afternoon enjoying a moment with his wife and two children at the hotel pool.

That night, however, just hours after receiving his award, Robinson apparently was more like an Athlete Seeking Action. He was arrested by a Miami vice cop on a charge of soliciting prostitution (oral sex, in particular) in an area of town not known for its churches.

Robinson says he will be "found innocent of this deal, but not righteous by the standards I've set for myself." At least he didn't blame presidential influence.

Personally, I don't believe soliciting prostitution should even be a crime, and in any case, Robinson's off-the-field business is none of ours. But this story transcends hypocrisy. It's on some other planet of hypocrisy.

In the game, Robinson was badly beaten on the 80-yard touchdown pass that broke things open for the Denver Broncos, but no one (to my knowledge) said, "Obviously this hypocrite has incurred God's wrath. The Lord has decided to punish Atlanta." On the other hand, had Robinson (or some other publicly pious player) been the hero of the Super Bowl, all we'd have heard is evangelical talk of how the Lord had rewarded his Christianity by making the victory possible.

Don't expect the Robinson saga to change much -- on Sunday, commentators' "hearts went out to him and his family" -- but maybe at least a few people will learn one little lesson. It's the same one that came through, from the opposite direction, in St. Louis last week:

Spirituality is priceless. Talk is cheap.