Religion: Pulling in the Welcome Mat

Protests and slim turnouts mar John Paul's Dutch visit

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When Pope John Paul II takes to the road, crowds are almost always huge and the mood celebratory. The Pontiff's magical spell, however, was abruptly snapped in the Netherlands last week during his 26th foreign journey. The Dutch, with 5.6 million Roman Catholics among 14.5 million citizens, accorded John Paul a remarkably unfriendly reception. There were street riots and also barbed comments from his hosts.

More significant, however, was the dismally low attendance at event after event, as though some pervasive national ennui had set in. Said one Vatican official, after observing the paltry crowd at an Amersfoort youth rally: "I have never seen anything like that." John Paul's four-day Dutch sojourn indicated that there are indeed distinct limits to the power of his personal charisma and that his attempt to reconcile Dutch Catholics with his conservative agenda for the church has had minimal success.

During the past two decades, the Netherlands has become something of a laboratory for progressive Catholicism and a continuing source of worry to the Vatican. Liberal Catholics, including some priests, have openly espoused women's ordination, birth control, an end to mandatory clerical celibacy, approval of remarriage after divorce, sharing Communion with Protestants and acceptance of homosexuality. John Paul has distressed many of the Dutch not only by opposing such views but by installing a series of unpopular conservative bishops to enforce his policies, rejecting candidates proposed by the Dutch clergy.

The Netherlands was the first country to react to a John Paul visit with violent physical hostility. However, it was generated by a fringe assortment of anarchists, homosexuals and punk youths. Street brawls by youths in the tiny nation have become such a fixture that the Dutch hardly seem to notice them anymore. The ugliest episode began in Utrecht with protesters who had assembled under a legal permit. Several dozens of the 1,000 marchers sang, "We're going to kill, kill, kill the Pope tonight," while pelting police with rocks, bottles and smoke bombs. At one point, a bottle, cans and eggs were hurled toward the bulletproof white Popemobile.

The embarrassingly small and unenthusiastic turnouts almost seemed to amount to a nationwide boycott. Instead of the hoped-for 50,000 people at the Eindhoven airport welcome, there were 7,000. In 's Hertogenbosch, parking was provided for 80,000 cars; 8,000 people were on hand. About 50,000 worshipers, most of them elderly, clustered before the huge altar at the open-air Mass in Maastricht, in the southern Catholic heartland; 150,000 had been expected. Some commentators explained that it is difficult these days to get the Dutch to leave their homes for any public event. Nonetheless, there was no masking the planners' disappointment. Aides of the Pope said he felt "sequestered" and was dissatisfied with the way the visit was organized.

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