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.
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
"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
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.
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 Mississippionly
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:
"...to 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 youthCatholic or notwho 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."
ninth-graders Patrick Patterson and Diane Farrow came
to St. Louis with a parish youth group, seeking fun
and a spiritual experience.
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.
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
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
The theme of the arrival ceremony,
set by the Archdiocese of St. Louispresumably in conversation
with the Holy Fatherwas 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
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
"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 beingsthe
unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered
un-usefulto be outside the boundaries of legal protection."
The pope pleaded with America, the world leader, to affirm a culture
in the Light
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.
Robert Rosebrough says he brought his youth group
to the papal events so they could be "drawn
into the mystery of the Church."
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 processionwith 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.
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
at the Trans World Dome
How do you pull off a Mass for 100,000? Start with buseslots
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
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!
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]."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 leadersJews, Muslims and Buddhists included.
There the pope reiterated his theme of freedom and responsibilitythis
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
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
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 airportevidently
proud to be of service to the Holy Fatherwore 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 truthtruth
revealed by God."
Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication. He
holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati.