"I Come as a Pilgrim"

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First, as always, came the pomp and the outpourings of adulation. A military band blared and a cheering throng waved yellow-and-white papal flags at Miami International Airport last week as Pope John Paul II emerged from a jumbo jet into the blazing Florida sun. Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy waited as the Pope, eight years after his last visit, stepped again onto U.S. soil to begin his long-awaited eleven-day, 17,000-mile pastoral journey.* Said John Paul on his arrival: "I come as a pilgrim, a pilgrim in the cause of justice and peace and human solidarity, striving to build up the one human family." But the Polish-born Pontiff had also come to listen, and to respond carefully to the divergent voices of the American religious melting pot -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- that were raised as he arrived.

Rarely if ever has the pilgrim Pope -- this U.S. trip is his 36th major voyage since assuming the throne of St. Peter in 1978 -- been blanketed under so many layers of watchful security. The 1,500 people who traveled to Miami's airport to bid the Pope welcome ran a gauntlet of some 7,000 National Guard troops, state and local police and agents of the Secret Service, which budgeted $5.5 million for the papal trip. Their roadblocks and security checks rendered the city's streets eerily empty. The intensity of the precautions cut into the size if not the warmth of the welcome that greeted John Paul as his cavalcade traveled into Miami on the initial 23-hour leg of his stay.

The security shroud was virtually the only impediment to goodwill in the first stages of the trip. Even as he flew toward Miami, the Pope emphasized that he would show a conciliatory face to the complex, fractious and independent-minded American Catholic Church he was about to encounter. "I am convinced that the American church is a good church, a very good church," John Paul told journalists, in informal remarks aboard the papal jetliner Spoleto. He downplayed the importance of dissident voices that he was expected to hear on such sensitive issues in the U.S. church as marriage for priests, homosexuality and the ordination of women. "I am accustomed to that," he said in answer to a question about protests. "It would not be normal not having that -- especially in America." John Paul said he intended to speak to both dissenters and the "great silent majority that is faithful."

The Pope held out a special hand of reconciliation in advance to Catholic homosexuals, who had been outraged at comments made by Archbishop John Foley, the American who heads Vatican communications. Foley had described the scourge of AIDS as a "natural sanction for certain types of activities." Aboard Spoleto, John Paul said homosexuals "are in the heart of the church," along with "all people who suffer." In his first-ever remarks on AIDS, the Pope said, "The church is doing all that is possible to heal and especially to prevent the moral background" of the disease.

Once on the ground, the Pope struck a positive theme to start his journey. Standing at the airport with President Reagan, John Paul expressed "thanksgiving to God" for the 200-year-old U.S. Constitution and for the "blessings of liberty it has secured." Then he added a disciplined admonition: "Americans who have received so much in freedom and prosperity and human enrichment," have a corresponding duty to share these blessings with others throughout the world. The Pontiff elaborated on that message at a later meeting with Reagan. "A new birth of freedom is repeatedly necessary," he said. "Freedom to exercise responsibility and generosity, freedom to meet the challenge of serving humanity."

At St. Martha's pastoral center, John Paul met with some 750 priests and heard an eloquent depiction of the concerns and difficulties that face American clerics who are struggling to cope with the challenge. Speaking on behalf of an estimated 53,000 U.S. priests was Father Frank McNulty, a pastor in Roseland, N.J., and a former vicar for priests in the Newark Archdiocese. McNulty was handpicked to speak by leaders of the U.S. hierarchy. McNulty told the Pontiff that church decrees often appear "harsh," and stated that priests must emphasize the mercy of God in dealing with the sins of parishioners. He gently reminded the Pope that America's clergy would like Rome to reopen consideration of two sensitive issues currently in dispute: priestly celibacy and the role of women in the church.

There is a "real and dramatic shortage of priests" in the U.S., McNulty declared, "critical enough to make us worry about the future. Morale suffers when we see so few young men follow in our footsteps. Morale suffers when we see parishes without priests and prayer services taking the place of Sunday Mass." Under those circumstances, he said, the value of priestly celibacy "continues to erode in the mind of many." Recognizing John Paul's "unequivocal" commitment to that priestly vow, however, McNulty asked only that the Pope "continue along paths of support and exploration." In the same vein, the New Jersey priest urged that the Holy See "continue to explore the range of service that women might appropriately offer the church . . . There is need for study, reflection and, above all, more dialogue with women."

Politely but firmly, John Paul rebutted McNulty's assertions on the role of mercy in considering how to deal with sin. The Pope declared that it is never "truly compassionate" to be tolerant in ways that are "contrary to the demands of God's word," a mild statement that nonetheless backed up his own staunchly conservative policies. The Pope did not respond directly on the touchy issues of celibacy and women. Instead, he noted that "it is important that we find satisfaction in our ministry, and that we be clear about the nature of the satisfaction which we can expect." On the issue of doctrinal diversity, the Pope replied, "Those who preach must do so with dynamic fidelity. This means being ever faithful to what has been handed on in tradition and Scripture." After the formal exchange had ended, the Pope embraced McNulty. Later the Pontiff told the priest, "You found good words."

Only two men know exactly what words were exchanged at the Pontiff's next stop, the palatial Renaissance-style villa Vizcaya, former home of Industrialist James Deering. Security remained tight both inside and outside the residence. Before the talks, frogmen made an underwater search of fetid Biscayne Bay. John Paul and President Reagan met inside the dwelling without even a translator for nearly an hour, then strolled through the villa's formal gardens. Reagan later told waiting journalists that the two had shared views on the "progress of genuine peace in Central America," on arms control and on the issue of more assistance from rich to poor nations. Echoing his words to Jimmy Carter in 1979, the Pope declared, "The more powerful a nation is . . . the greater also must be its commitment to the betterment of the lot of those whose very humanity is constantly being threatened by want and need."

At the Dade County Cultural Center, John Paul held another sensitive meeting, this time with 196 American Jewish leaders. The Pope had seen several of the dignitaries the previous week in Rome, in a bid to calm the Jewish outrage that followed his June audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. The Rome meeting failed to mollify two major organizations of U.S. Orthodox Jews, which boycotted last week's Miami session. But for those who attended, the meeting radiated conciliation.

John Paul referred to Jews as "fellow believers" and spoke of the Holocaust as a "ruthless and inhuman" effort to exterminate specifically European Jews. "Never again!" the Pontiff declared, repeating a common Jewish phrase referring to the Nazi era. He also endorsed Catholic-Jewish programs to educate youngsters about the Nazi atrocities. Said Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee: "The healing is under way."

There was a little less concord on some political issues. Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, speaking for the Jewish attendees, urged once again that "full and formal diplomatic relation relations be established soon between the Vatican and the state of Israel." John Paul replied that the "Jewish people . . . have a right to a homeland, as does any civil nation." But the same principle "also applies to the Palestinian people, so many of whom remain homeless and refugees."

The next day, as the Pope traveled to Miami's Tamiami Park to celebrate his first public Mass on the journey, thousands of well-wishers lined the highways, occasionally mobbing his Popemobile -- a white Mercedes-Benz 230G equipped with protective wraparound glass. The weather, however, was less forthcoming. A violent thunderstorm caused abandonment of the service due to the threat of lightning. (A day earlier, in San Antonio, where the Pope was scheduled to celebrate a Mass on Sunday, winds toppled two twelve-story towers behind his outdoor altar.)

The Pope then flew on to Columbia, S.C., where he had a private meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and Wife Rosalynn. (The session was canceled after Carter learned that his brother Billy was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, then rescheduled at the last minute.) In Columbia the Pontiff continued his outreach to America's non-Catholics as he conferred with a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders.

The 26 delegates met with John Paul in an ornate sitting room at the home of James Holderman, president of the University of South Carolina. For more than an hour the leaders discussed what one observer called the "expansion of spiritual commitment and their common grounds of baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the divinity of Christ and common communion." Bishop Philip Cousin of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and also president of the National Council of Churches, told John Paul that a "sense of religious strength" among Americans offered the possibility of unique advances in ecumenism. For his part, the Pope replied diplomatically that "we must greatly rejoice in discovering the extent to which we are already united, while we respectfully and serenely acknowledge the factors that still divide us."

The church leaders later moved to the university stadium for an ecumenical prayer service attended by 60,000 worshipers. There John Paul delivered a fervent plea for Christians to join in protecting marriage and traditional morality. In America, he proclaimed, "the family is being shaken to its roots. The consequences for individuals and society in personal and collective instability and unhappiness are incalculable."

Then the Pope sped on to New Orleans, where he was greeted on arrival with -- surprise! -- a chorus of When the Saints Go Marching In by the Olympia Brass and Funeral Band. Despite that lively welcome, the crowds that viewed the Pontiff were smaller than expected. After paying tribute at St. Louis Cathedral to local priests and sisters for their "heroic dedication," he traveled to the famed Superdome. There, at a meeting with black Catholics, Bishop Joseph Howze of Biloxi, Miss., told John Paul that "racism is a major hindrance to full development of black leadership within the church." John Paul responded that racial diversity shows that Christ's "liberating Gospel" belongs to all groups. He also paid tribute to the "providential role" that was played by Baptist Leader Martin Luther King Jr.

That session was followed by a rousing youth festival, where 50,000 onlookers brandished blue and green flash cards and roared as John Paul attempted to don a gaudy Mardi Gras mask. "I love it," gushed twelve-year- old Kim Harrigan of Port Sulfur, La. John Paul then traveled to an outdoor Mass; some 200,000 rain-drenched worshipers attended.

That evening the Pope met at Xavier University with leaders from the 215- member Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. The association is lobbying to prevent a pending Vatican decree that would require doctrinal orthodoxy of theologians who teach at Catholic campuses. John Paul did not refer to that dispute, but boldly insisted that theologians need to work in unity with the Pope and bishops. "The fruits of their work," said he, "must ultimately be tested and validated" by church officialdom.

The Pope was to spend his only Sunday in the U.S. in San Antonio, where he was expected to offer special recognition to the nation's burgeoning and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Hispanic minority, now numbered at 18.8 million. His rhapsodic welcome was expected to continue, with exceptions: there was talk of significant protests by gays and feminists in San Francisco and Detroit. Whatever other distinctly American dissonance John Paul may face down the road, though, his conciliatory mission was off to a promising -- and uplifting -- start.

FOOTNOTE: *Last week's itinerary covered Miami, Columbia, S.C., and New Orleans. This week's stops: San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, Calif., San Francisco and Detroit, plus a visit to northern Canada.