Pope John Paul II embraces a young woman during the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.).

Pope John Paul Evangelist

The article originally appeared in America on September 11, 1993.

THE DISCORDANCE BETWEEN the Pope’s visits and the hyperallergic reactions they provoke has to do with more than abortion. It’s not just that the Pope is liable to say something “embarrassing” about the violence of taking unborn life. It’s that he insists on being an evangelist. According to secular orthodoxy, at least in this country, religion is and ought to be an utterly private matter, whereas the Pope keeps going public with religion.

He’s bursting with the good news of Jesus Christ and has the bad taste (in the secularist view) to keep mentioning His name. The idea that religion is an encounter with a real and powerful person, still alive, whose teachings represent an objective and exigent truth—that whole idea is quite out of the question and, well, fanatical or even tending to the fascistic. So they say.

Listen to Molly Haskell, in a review of Leni Riefenstahl’s memoir, comparing a Nazi rally to the Pope’s visit (The Washington Post Book World, 8/29): “We see something of the same pan-erotic, orgiastic drive in rock concerts, or the crushing crowds for the Pope’s visit: that willingness to regress, via the mystical or auditory gibberish of musical beat or verbal incantation, into a state of mindlessly sanctified belonging.” Oh, come on, Molly. Ask any of the youths who trekked out to Cherry Creek State Park in the 90-degree heat if they found it a pan-erotic, orgiastic experience. This belittling rhetoric is exactly the sort that wants to relegate whatever the Pope says to the realm of the irrational and unimportant. It exemplifies, as E. J. Dionne Jr. had put it in The Washington Post just two weeks earlier, “the tendency of liberals to drive religious voices to the margins of public discussion” (“A Church Misrepresented,” 8/17).          The young people who did the trekking and sweating recognized the Pope’s visit for what it was first and foremost: a public and unashamed profession of their mutual faith in Jesus Christ. A statement issued by the International Youth Forum that had met at Denver’s Regis University just prior to World Youth Day caught the spirit of the papal visit correctly: “We ask all those who call themselves Christians to allow themselves to be guided by grace to encounter Christ in the church, through the sacraments, prayer and the reception of the word. […] We thank Pope John Paul II, Peter’s successor, for his encouragement and we pledge to him to be the new evangelizers and the living stones of the church.”

This statement gets it just right for a number of reasons: 1) The encounter with Christ is primary. 2) From that encounter will flow spiritual effects. 3) It is a Christian’s duty to make the encounter with Christ possible for other people—to evangelize.

That is what the Pope’s visits are all about. In any case, the youths who helped him celebrate this bottom-line Christianity did not look like fanatics to a nation that saw them on television. Denver residents who might have been inclined beforehand to find the spectacle tedious and tasteless were won over by the ordinariness and good humor of young people who, unlike themselves, were thrilled by the Pope’s faith. (See, for instance, “Papal Postcard: John Denver,” by Robin Chotzinoff in The New Republic, 9/6.) Which is not at all to say that the Pope’s words were bland or biteless. In a homily of August 14, he defined the “new evangelization” he is embarked upon as 1) the defense of human life, 2) the promotion of human rights and 3) the fostering of a civilization of love. Since the theme of this World Youth Day was “life,” the Pope laid special emphasis on the first of those three. In his opening address, a response to President Bill Clinton’s welcome at Stapleton International Airport, the Pope avoided the neuralgic word “abortion” but mentioned the word “life” 10 times and declared, “America, defend life.” In the Pope’s August 15 homily at Cherry Creek State Park, he used the word “life” 33 times and expatiated on a “culture of death” that assumes institutional form in the legalization of genocide, final solutions, ethnic cleansings, abortion and euthanasia. When Vice President Al Gore saw him off at the end, the Pope’s farewell remarks used the word “life” 12 times, referred directly to abortion as an evil and ended by saying, “America, defend life.”

AGAIN, John Paul does not consider this message so much an imposition on U.S. law as part of his basic Christian evangel: the good news of a Father whose “most fundamental gift is human life” and of a Christ who came that we “might have life and have it to the full”—as the Pope put it repeatedly. The Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano explained the Pope’s concern for the United States by saying brightly: “When you have a very capable, very intelligent child in whom you place great trust, you want him to live up to his potential.” One expects something more diplomatic and less revealing from a Secretary of State. To tell the truth, the most problematic aspect of such papal visits is the impression they may give of a Pope speaking to a mature church as if it were a child, speaking too much in fact and listening too little, especially to women.

Such reservations should not keep us from recognizing the most fundamental reality of such a visit. Our Pope is an evangelist par excellence. That is what we are all called to be: defenders of human life and human rights and promoters of a civilization of love. And now John Paul is immediately off to the Baltics. As he said to a group of Lithuanian pilgrims in Denver: “Until we meet in September!”