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The Pope Visits St. Louis

[ Feature 1 Photo]
St. Louis's "old cathedral," built in 1834 near the banks of the Mississippi River, is testimony to the religious roots of this "Gateway to the West" region.

Photo by John Bookser Feister



It was 30 hours of speeches, parades, warm encounters and challenging pleas. When the pope comes to town, things just aren't quite the same afterward.

By John Bookser Feister

 Rome of the West

 A Jubilant Arrival

 Walk in the Light

 A Playful Pope

 Mass at the Trans World Dome

 At Eucharist With the Pope

 Nurturing Faith

"JOHN PAUL II! WE LOVE YOU!" The crowd of 20,000 youth roared that slogan at Kiel Center in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, in late January. A stooped-over, 78 year-old pontiff, his wizened face projected on enormous JumboTron TV screens throughout the packed arena, summoned his own energy for the youth. "Tonight the pope belongs to you!" he proclaimed. Could the cheers have gotten any louder?

Pope John Paul II, health concerns or not, has not lost his charisma. For 30 hours he was among us, January 26-27, on a stopover pastoral visit en route from Mexico City to Rome. During this brief, seventh papal visit to the United States, he not only exchanged the vibrancy of faith, but also delivered a clear and challenging message to America.

The pope implored his audiences that protecting the dignity of life is America's deepest calling. In five speeches he returned repeatedly to the theme, decrying abortion, racism, poverty and euthanasia, unambiguously proclaiming the death penalty as "cruel and unnecessary." He persuaded Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, who had originally been scheduled for execution on the very day of the papal visit. Himself a doctor of philosophy, the pope called upon Americans to remember the philosophical foundations of our nation: protection of the individual in a free society.

Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, who invited the Holy Father, explained the invitation in advance to St. Anthony Messenger: "There's no reason other than the fact that the Holy Father will be nearby, in Mexico City, and he has never been to St. Louis, a large American archdiocese."

Archbishop Rigali is known to be a friend of Pope John Paul II from Rigali's 20 years of service in the Roman Curia. He explained that there was no official connection between the pope's visit to St. Louis and his delivery in Mexico City of the concluding paper for 1997's Synod for America, held in Vatican City (see "Synod Document: All-American Challenge"). But with well over 1,000 journalists reporting the St. Louis event, and the entire world listening in, the visit was historic.

Highlights of the visit included a welcome by President Bill Clinton and farewell by Vice President Al Gore, an enormous youth rally on Tuesday, an ecumenical prayer service at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and a much larger Mass at the America's Center convention complex in downtown St. Louis.

Rome of the West

St. Louis is a city once known as the "Rome of the West." Explorers of the Louisiana region brought their French names and their Catholic faith with them. That faith would endure long after the French sold the vast expanse to the new American nation.

In 1834 the people of young St. Louis built the first cathedral west of the Mississippi—only a few thousand feet west, actually. The "old cathedral," the Basilica of St. Louis IX, King of France, still stands as a point of pride for St. Louis very near the world-famous Gateway Arch. From this episcopal see would be formed 45 others, including the archdioceses of Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Paul, Dubuque, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City (Kansas) and Oklahoma City.

As the city grew, its Catholic population grew, too. Though not the largest U.S. diocese today, St. Louis maintains a place of honor among Catholics in America. The archdiocese celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1997.

The pope found in St. Louis a city brimming with activity and preparation for this enormous event. Banners announcing the papal visit had adorned lampposts since before Christmas, announcing the theme of this pastoral visit, taken from the pope's apostolic letter The Coming Third Millennium: " ensure that the power of salvation may be shared by all."

The downtown area in front of Kiel Center, site of the "Light of the World" youth rally, was temporarily transformed into "Papal Plaza." Sidewalks were cordoned off to make way for vendors, delivery people, pilgrims, bands, stage crews, archdiocesan event organizers and countless satellite trucks.

Papal Plaza, a grassy mall area, hosted tens of thousands of young people during the papal visit. They listened to Christian rock bands and youth testimonials amplified by sound equipment equal to any outdoor concert. On several huge TV screens they watched the pope's arrival, meeting with the president and popemobile motorcade across St. Louis, as well as the rally inside Kiel Center.

Rock drummer Ben Cissel, warming up at the plaza with his nationally known Christian band Audio Adrenaline, speaks for many youth—Catholic or not—who see a role model in the 78-year-old pope: "Pretty much nobody that walks this earth is as big as the pope," says 23-year-old Cissel. "He's just got this aura about him. He's just so Christlike. I've heard people who have met him say that he makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world."

[ Feature 2 Photo]

Texas ninth-graders Patrick Patterson and Diane Farrow came to St. Louis with a parish youth group, seeking fun and a spiritual experience.

Photo by John Bookser Feister


A younger couple, ninth-graders from Union Grove, Texas, express a more simple desire. Patrick Patterson and Diane Farrow both worked for months in a "rent-a-kid" jobs program to raise money for their 47-member youth group from St. Therese Parish to travel to St. Louis to see the pope (she baked and did housework; he hauled firewood). After lighting candles and saying some brief prayers in the old cathedral, Patrick comments, "It will be cool to say, 'I actually saw the pope.'" Diane chides him, reminding him that this is an important spiritual event.

A Jubilant Arrival

For all the talk of a frail pope, the man keeps a remarkable schedule. After flying to St. Louis from Mexico City, he went to work for a solid nine more hours including speeches, meetings, a papal parade and leading a youth prayer service for 20,000.

The plane he came on, a Mexicana airliner dubbed S.S. Juan Pablo II for the journey, touched down in St. Louis not long after Air Force One. While President and Mrs. Clinton waited inside a hangar with about 2,400 invitation-only greeters, the pope walked down the steps of the jumbo jet without assistance and crossed the tarmac without his cane, albeit quite slowly.

President Clinton gave a speech hailing the pope's many accomplishments and his vision for a just society. "The Catholic Church in America is helping all of us to live that vision," said the president. "For 20 years you have lifted our spirits and touched our hearts." From time to time during the ceremony the president lent a supportive arm to the frail-looking pope.

The theme of the arrival ceremony, set by the Archdiocese of St. Louis—presumably in conversation with the Holy Father—was family. Five families (out of about 500 present) representing various social and ethnic groups presented gifts to the pope.

Early on the pontiff showed compassion when he strayed from the path toward a presidential handshake to embrace a young child, Greg Portilla, who uses a wheelchair. The child's mother, Lisa Portilla, told a journalist later of the Gospel-like scene: "I was seated in the front row and knew the Holy Father would walk by close to us. When I saw him, I called out, 'Holy Father, will you bless my child?' I asked again and again. Finally his eyes met mine and he came over. It was so holy!"

In his opening address the pope sounded his theme for this pastoral visit. He compared today's acceptance of abortion, assisted suicide and social injustice to the historic, racially unjust Dred Scott decision, which originated in St. Louis. In that pivotal 1857 Supreme Court decision, African Americans were deemed beyond the scope of constitutional protection.

"American culture faces a similar time of trial today," the pope said. "Today, the conflict is between a culture that affirms and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings—the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered un-useful—to be outside the boundaries of legal protection." The pope pleaded with America, the world leader, to affirm a culture of life.

Walk in the Light

Anticipating the pope's arrival, events in St. Louis had started hours earlier with a youth march leading to a day-long youth rally at Kiel Center, a 20,000-seat sports arena. About 5,000 youth gathered on the grounds of the Gateway Arch for the 9 a.m. march.

[ Feature 2 Photo]

Father Robert Rosebrough says he brought his youth group to the papal events so they could be "drawn into the mystery of the Church."

Photo by John Bookser Feister

The parade was led by a procession of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts carrying flags from around the world. Jennifer Colvin carried the U.S. flag, next to a Boy Scout carrying the Vatican flag. Jennifer is a member of United Community in Christ Church in St. Louis. She suggests that the papal visit is far more than a Catholic event: "I think it's a wonderful way to bring everybody in the community together in a positive manner."

Far back in the parade, Father Robert Rosebrough (wearing a red ballcap bearing his nickname, "Father Rosy") tells what he thinks the rally means for the Catholic youth group he has brought from Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park, Missouri. "A lot of these youth will be drawn into the mystery of the Church today," he says, "and they don't even know it's going to happen." They'll experience energy and life in the Church, he says, with the pope in the center.

The pope's vision of what he wants for the youth will affect them, Father Rosebrough says. "Something will happen on this procession—with all these thousands of kids marching. They won't miss that." Between the march and the many events of the youth rally, they'll get a wider picture of the Church, he says.

Father Rosebrough also realizes that the experience may not truly register with the youths for years. He fondly recalls the first procession that he joined, here on the banks of the Mississippi in 1954. A barge passed by carrying a statue of the Blessed Virgin, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the papal declaration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. "To me, the Church is about belonging," he says. That sense grows by experiencing key moments of belonging that can happen at events like rallies and papal visits.

A Playful Pope

The day concluded with the pope leading a prayer service for an arena full of very wound-up youth at Kiel Center. Disembarking from the popemobile (a white automobile specially adapted) after a parade across town, he had an impromptu meeting with St. Louis baseball giant Mark McGwire. As the encounter was shown on the giant TV screens in the Kiel Center, the youth went wild with excitement. The decibels got even higher when the "mini" popemobile (an adapted golf cart) made its way down the center aisle.

The pope gave two talks to the youth, exhorting them to take their faith seriously now, to be the light of the world. Using the analogy of sports conditioning, and mentioning Mark McGwire (and Sammy Sosa) to more roaring approval, he told the young people that they are in spiritual training, too. He laid out for them key issues they should be addressing including prayer and the sacraments, service, vocational choices. His message was well received, though his speech was sometimes noticeably slurred. (The pope has a degenerative nervous system disorder.)

Perhaps the evening's most touching moment came when the Holy Father embraced and blessed children from a local Catholic children's hospital.

The lightest moment came when the youth presented the pope with a hockey stick and a St. Louis Blues hockey jersey bearing the name John Paul II and the number one. The Holy Father arose from the chair where he had looked exhausted and nearly immobile and slowly walked to a microphone. The crowd roared its approval yet again. Taking a few mock swipes with the stick, the pope then told the crowd, "Now I am ready to play hockey again!"

Mass at the Trans World Dome

How do you pull off a Mass for 100,000? Start with buses—lots of them. Seemingly every school bus in the region was enlisted to transport people from suburban pickup points down into St. Louis's America's Center area for the papal Mass. Every available seat in the center, which includes the TWA Dome and adjoining convention exhibit hall, was spoken for, which adds up to about 104,000 Mass-goers. It was billed as the largest U.S. indoor gathering ever.

People had to be inside the buildings by 7:30 a.m. (so police could secure the complex), which meant the buses began loading early, about 4 a.m. For those traveling from outlying areas of the archdiocese or beyond, that meant leaving home at an ungodly hour.

But none of the gathering crowd was complaining at predawn outside the TWA Dome. Doug Mennemeir and his ninth-grade son, Ryan, from O'Fallon, Missouri, were in line about a half block back from the entrance, with plenty of people behind them. They won admission tickets through the lottery that was set up at their parish, St. Barnabas. (Archbishop Rigali had recommended lotteries to distribute the limited tickets.)

Ryan had spent yesterday at the Light of the World Youth Rally and came back with his father today. Facing a block-long line at 6:30 a.m. didn't bother Doug: "You don't even think about that when you think of the greatness that's going to be inside." Doug says he's always known the pope was head of the Church, "but when you see him in person it helps to put things into perspective."

Rose Marie Pilipowski got into the Mass even though she had driven down from her home in suburban Chicago without tickets. "I had been praying to St. Jude [patron of lost causes] since the visit was announced in October," she told St. Anthony Messenger. It seems she had some medals she wanted blessed, and she was still kicking herself for missing Pope John Paul II's visit to Chicago some 20 years ago.

Getting desperate, she asked a priest if she could count a blessing by JumboTron TV outside the event in case she didn't get in. He told her, "Rose Marie, after driving down here without admission tickets, they're already blessed." On Saturday her faith paid off. She donned a sign around her neck in the Papal Plaza that said, "If St. Jude sent you with my ticket, then here I am." A journalist who had tickets for all events but couldn't stay for the Mass saw the sign and, well, you might say St. Jude came through!

At Eucharist With the Pope

The Mass was unforgettable, if not as electric as the youth rally. Three big choirs, a complete orchestra, procession after procession, hundreds of bishops, all cooperating like clockwork. It was pageantry at its finest. The Holy Father came in from a parade route by popemobile, first touring through the exhibit-hall crowd, then being driven once around the inside perimeter of the cavernous hall of the TWA Dome.

The papal Mass was planned as a celebration of God's mercy, a Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In a carefully crafted homily the pope repeated themes of his letter The Coming Third Millennium as the theological foundation of his appeal for Americans to cherish life: "In Jesus Christ, the Father has spoken the definitive word about our true destiny and the meaning of human history. 'In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an expiation for our sins' [1 John 4:10]."

About 104,000 people packed the Trans World Dome and adjoining convention center for the papal Mass January 27.


In brief, God's mercy is our salvation, our very source of life, said the pope. Therefore we must open our hearts to God's mercy and we, too, must be merciful to others. "In the Mass and in Eucharistic Adoration we meet the merciful God of love that passes through the heart of Jesus Christ," he said.

The core of the homily was a challenge to America to heed this mercy and thus become unconditionally pro-life in every situation: abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, racism, poverty, even capital punishment. "I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary," he said. "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

The crowd applauded at this point, as they had at some of the other principal points in his homily. Yet the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Catholics, tell pollsters they support the death penalty.

(Later, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, met privately with Missouri Governor Carnahan, asking him to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Darrell Mease. But it was later in the day when the governor was finally persuaded by the Holy Father himself. Passing through a receiving line, the pope drew the governor close and said to him, "Have mercy on Mr. Mease." The governor did so the next day, changing Mease's sentence to life without parole. His spokesman had said that the encounter really moved the governor. Governor Carnahan told reporters he commuted the sentence in honor of the pope's historic visit, but he said he still supports the death penalty.)

The pope also emphasized the importance of marriage and family, "the first school of social virtue and solidarity." The Mass-goers broke into sustained applause when he said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation!" The Holy Father again sounded his theme of millennium preparation, calling all to a renewed sense of repentance and calling for anyone alienated from the Church for any reason to return and accept the mercy of Christ. "Christ is seeking you out and inviting you back to the community of faith," he said.

Nurturing Faith

From the comments of people at the rallies, marches, on the streets and at Mass, a common theme emerges. People go to great lengths to see the pope because they are looking for a bedrock faith experience, the kind of foundational experience that happens only a few times during one's life.

Gina Ponstingl told St. Anthony Messenger she brought her two young children to Mass for that reason. She is a member of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Weingarten, Missouri. In 1984 she spent time in a coma after being struck head-on in her auto by a drunk driver. "When I was in a coma I had a feeling like I met God. It was just such an overwhelming experience." She hopes that bringing her children to see the pope will bring them closer to God, too, "since the pope is like God." Her pastor helped her to get the tickets.

Gina will have a rare souvenir from the event. A "friend of a friend," a local woodworker, made the presider's chair that the pope used during the Mass. There were some small scraps of wood left over, one of which she received. She wore it (and one from a family member) on a string around her neck at Mass so it would be blessed by the pope.

[ Feature 2 Photo]

Gina Ponstingl brought her children Allan (10) and Anmarie (9) to the papal Mass to experience God's presence. Her "necklace" contains small blocks of leftover wood from the papal chair.

Photo by John Bookser Feister


The pope wrapped up his 30-hour visit with two events. First was an interfaith prayer service held at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, with Vice President Al Gore in attendance along with other civic leaders and a host of local religious leaders—Jews, Muslims and Buddhists included. There the pope reiterated his theme of freedom and responsibility—this time to address America's responsibility as a world leader: "Radical changes in world politics leave America with a heightened responsibility to be for the world a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society."

After the prayer service there was a very brief meeting with 87-year-old civil-rights legend Rosa Parks, perhaps as a sign of solidarity with the U.S. bishops' conference, which in November targeted racism again as a priority. The pope decried racism repeatedly during his talks as a "plague." Parks, who attended the prayer service, is the woman whose refusal to yield her bus seat sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955. The boycott called forth as spokesman a Montgomery pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., who went on to lead the civil-rights movement.

Finally the pope and the vice president had a courtesy meeting at the airport before Shepherd One (a papal jet courtesy of TWA) and Air Force Two departed for Rome and Washington, D.C., respectively. The ground crew at the airport—evidently proud to be of service to the Holy Father—wore caps bearing the words Shepherd One. The pope surprised onlookers when he passed up the opportunity for a lift by the so-called "people-mover" (an airport lift-truck disguised under a white canopy bearing the papal coat of arms) and walked onto the jet up 19 steep steps, one at a time, on his own. It was a poignant gesture at the end of what might be this pope's last visit to the United States.

At the cathedral prayer service he had summed up his message to America, repeating the famous words of Pope Paul VI and extending them with his own biblical theme: "America: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth—truth revealed by God."


John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication. He holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati.



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