Pope John Paul II visits St. Louis Missouri

Day One: First the President, Then the Youth

by John Bookser Feister

    For all the talk of a frail pope, the man keeps a remarkable schedule. John Paul II flew into St. Louis from Mexico City today, and then went to work for a solid 9 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 the President and Mrs. Clinton waited inside a hangar with about 2,000 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." The president from time to time during the ceremony 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 representing various social and ethnic groups presented gifts to the pope.

    Early on the pontiff showed his compassion when he strayed from the path to his appointed seat to embrace a young child, Greg Portilla, who uses a wheelchair.

    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 was handed down in St. Louis. "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 unuseful--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

    The 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.

    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 crowd, 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 Rosebough 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 until years from now. 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 Assumption 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 20,000 very wound-up youth at Kiel Center. Disembarking the popemobile after a parade across town, he had an impromptu meeting with St. Louis baseball giant Mark McGwire. The encounter was shown on the giant TV screen in the Kiel Center; the youth went wild with ear-splitting excitement. The decibels got even higher when the "mini" popemobile (an adapted golfcart) made its way down the center aisle.

    After telling his young fans, "The pope belongs to you!" he 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 to more roaring approval, he told the youth that they are in spiritual training, too. He layed 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 moments 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 walked to a microphone. The crowd roared its approval yet again. Then the pope told the youth, "Now I am ready to play hockey again."

    John Bookser Feister is editor of American Catholic Online. His full report on the papal visit will appear in the April edition of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

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