Religion: Discord in the Church

A decisive Pope John Paul confronts challenges to his authority

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On a gray and misty morning late last week, Pope John Paul II arrived at a $ Rome airport in a Mercedes-Benz limousine, quietly bade farewell to Vatican aides and boarded an Alitalia DC-10. Once again the Pope was airborne, setting forth this time on a strenuous twelve-day "pilgrimage of hope" to Latin America. Arriving at Caracas' Simon Bolivar Airport under a warm afternoon sun, the Pontiff, his white robe flapping in the soft Caribbean breezes, was greeted by Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi. Waving to the crowd, the Pope traveled in his converted Land Rover Popemobile along a twisting hillside road into the capital.

Meeting with Venezuela's bishops that evening, John Paul issued decisive marching orders. He called upon the region's hierarchy to correct errant Catholic thinkers "with charity and firmness." Too many theologians, said the Pope, "proclaim not the truth of Christ but their own theories," a theme that may recur during the current journey. By the end of his 18,500- mile trip, John Paul will have flown from Venezuela to Ecuador to Peru to Trinidad and Tobago, delivered 44 other speeches, lunched with steelworkers, met upcountry Indians and visited a sector of Peru rife with Maoist guerrillas.

Indeed, one of the most enduring images of this pontificate is surely the white-garbed figure of John Paul descending from an aircraft, his arms spread wide, the familiar smile bestowed on a welcoming crowd. In his six years as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, he covered 210,000 miles during the 24 foreign voyages prior to his current trip. No other religious leader has ever traveled so extensively or been seen in person by so many millions of people. No previous Pope, moreover, has placed such a determined emphasis on the unifying message that John Paul II has proclaimed as the reason for his travels: to assure each local congregation, no matter how remote, of its important role in the universal church.

The 1980s mark a historic turning point for Roman Catholicism. Beneath all of the gloss and spectacle of the papacy, beyond the wealth, power and influence of the Holy See, a profound struggle is taking shape, one that is of crucial importance to the church's 810 million members--and to many not in its fold. At stake is the future direction of a strong, dynamic, yet deeply perturbed institution.

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