CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal

Pope John Paul II Sings

This editorial originally appeared in America October 21, 1995. 

PEOPLE IN PEORIA, Pensacola and Seattle, we hear, were more interested in the O. J. Simpson verdict, Hurricane Opal or the American League pennant race. But for those in the metropolitan areas of Newark, New York City and Baltimore, Pope John Paul II’s marathon visit from Oct. 4 to 8 was a big deal. Non-stop radio and local television coverage blanketed the airwaves; and in a notable act of penance, the print media did a lot more than recycle their routine but now tiresome poll-watcher’s stories about how many American Catholics disagree with what the Pope says about sex and gender.

For four days, the church visible displayed itself at prayer—and public cynicism took time out. Giants Stadium, Aqueduct Race Track, Central Park’s Great Lawn and the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards—the places to which Americans go to forget the stress of modern life—were transformed into spaces to remember ourselves profoundly, as a nation of immigrants, beloved by God and empowered by the Spirit to do the truth. The expectations of the thousands who came to worship in chilling rain, heat and early morning drizzle were not disappointed. The last time he visited New York in 1979, the Pope kept stopping downpours; this time the papal darshans turned playing fields into praying fields.

Sex and gender, as a matter of fact, got only cursory reference in the Holy Father’s homilies. Instead he stuck to the core mysteries of the faith and the church’s social teaching—and its evident clash with the current politics of meanness toward immigrants and the poor. Citing Emma Lazarus and Abraham Lincoln, he invited all Americans to remain faithful to their best instincts and ideals. “Is present-day America,” he asked, “becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy? … It must not.”

English is not the Pope’s native tongue, and reading from a prepared text does not make for great preaching. But what started out sounding like a lecture in trinitarian dogmatics— the entry of the Creator’s Eternal Wisdom into history— finally broke into song, in Polish no less, at Central Park on the third day. Somehow, at that magical Pentecostal moment, the crowd awakened with laughter to the great blessing the Pope was conveying to them. That is, it was this real person singing in an incomprehensible tongue that made the connection between the doctrine of the Incarnation and the church’s social teaching: that being rich in God’s extravagant love—rather than up against a wall, fearful and poor in affection—they might go forth joyfully to act generously.

In only slightly less theologically charged language, the Pope’s multilingual address to the United Nations General Assembly on the morning of Oct. 5 struck a similar Pentecostal note. The speech began with a ringing endorsement of “the ideal and goals” of the United Nations, not a popular sentiment these days in America, and urged the organization to rise above “the cold status of an administrative institution” and become “a moral center where all nations of the world feel at home

The U.N. speech dealt with the global quest for freedom and the problem of a resurgent nationalism that fears the “other” and the “different.” “Unhappily, the world has yet to learn how to live with diversity.” With the mayhem of Central Africa and Bosnia explicitly in mind, the Pope both defended cultural particularity (“every culture…is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life”) and called for an ethic among nations based on “a spirit of peace, respect and solidarity.”

“We must not be afraid of the future. We must not be afraid of man…. [W]e can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person…. And in doing so, we shall see the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.”

This was not the same man who visited us in 1979, full of the European intellectual’s certainty of the shallowness of American individualism and materialism. Even before his chartered plane landed at Newark, John Paul was telling reporters that the United States served as something of a model for reconciling universal solidarity with ethnic diversity and difference. This was a Pope, in other words, who now believes that America, if it does not forget itself, has something to teach the world about the mutual trust that makes unity in diversity possible.

WOULD JOHN PAUL be willing to acknowledge that perhaps the American church might have something to teach the Holy See on this score? Not very likely. In a recent interview in our pages (10/7), the canon lawyer Ladislas Orsy, S.J., spoke of the failure of this papacy to develop the institutional structures, for example of episcopal collegiality and lay participation, that would implement the “beautiful vision” of the Second Vatican Council. “It is no exaggeration,” he remarked, “to say that, under certain aspects, we have a stronger centralization of the Roman Catholic Church today than ever before in history.”

For Catholics who find themselves disturbed by this fact, the prophet Habakkuk’s words, read during the Mass in Baltimore’s Camden Yards last week bear good advice. Hang in there, they tell us:


For the vision still has its time,

presses on to fulfillment,

            and will not disappoint.

If it delays, wait for it,

it will surely come.