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Seen from far out, this pope is an amazing man.

Although old and fragile now, John Paul II still draws bigger crowds than any other superstar. He did it again in Denver. The twist this time was the young people, tens of thousands from more than 100 nations, at a time when the Catholic church, like most organized religions, is supposed to be in a slump.

There's nothing quite like it on earth. Here's this old guy, grinning and grimacing by turn, occasionally nodding off from fatigue, dressed (let's face it) funny. But cute, the young people say. A teddy bear. Cool, even. Oozing charisma, according to the media. So much energy generated wherever he goes. And everyone having a good time. Most crime and nastiness practically suspended in Denver for the duration, the police admitted. A phenomenon.

An amazing man. Knew the Nazi horror back in Poland. Then the communists. Rose to eminence under the most extenuating circumstances. Poet, philosopher and skier -- a rare profile for a priest. Survivor of an assassination attempt, which, some say, has given him the impression he has a special destiny. He has traveled more than any pope in pursuit of that destiny, in the process making himself the best-known household name on earth.

Then there is the alleged dark side: the rigid autocrat who insists father knows best, surrounded in a fortress Vatican, critics say, by so many out-of-touch, myopic curialists, chewing on assorted bones of contention. The phenomenon is a conundrum.

Popes have grown so big in 2,000 years that we need to stand way back to see them. From outer space, perhaps. That, after all, is similar to the view we say God has.

From far out, the history of the world was the twinkling of an eye. People appeared on earth, groped and foraged, stood on their hind legs, talked, made the wheel, the wooden club, the fur coat. As time passed, they asked more and more questions, especially "what is the meaning of all this?" And, in response, all kinds of gurus tried to explain the brutal, glorious, mixed-up world.

Some of these teachers were in various degrees divine, Zoroaster, Mohammed and Jesus, to name but a few. Their followers were so impressed that they stuck together after their founders' deaths. They multiplied, got organized, got richer (usually), got buildings and parking lots as well as faith, hope and charity, and called themselves religions.

One of the wonders of our everchanging world is the constancy of the churches, an extraordinary unity in the face of so much diversity. Yes, there were schisms, crackups, wars -- but very few, considering how close religion gets to what makes us tick. For hundreds or thousands of years, millions have clung to common creeds about where they came from, what their lives signify.

During the centuries of coping with what we used to call the world, the flesh and the devil, individuals fused into a body that became bigger and better and more hopeful than the sum of its parts. Our history became a glory.

What folks applauded in Denver was more than the pope's considerable charisms. It was a celebration of all the Catholics -- ourselves -- from around the world who could not be in Denver.

It celebrated the host of people who went before us whose legacies of grace and achievement linger on; nuns who built the schools and hospitals, who gave their lives in silence, penance and obscurity; priests who gave their time and themselves to their people; missionaries to far-off, often inhospitable lands, many of whom never came back; the laity, the neglected laity who are the heart of the whole thing; martyrs, who usually hadn't planned the big sacrifice but rose to the occasion.

The Catholic church, in this view, is also a repository of heroism, of shining successes as well as well-known failures. For this we were applauding ourselves in Denver, having a party.

Old-timers, looking back, commonly remember the good times, filter out what was ugly or painful. Churches too.

The Catholic church has a long memory of people and events it would like to forget, the Inquisition for example, or some ill-conceived, bloody crusades; some corrupt popes and other scoundrels; some rigid laws and torture chambers to enforce them. Not the stuff of celebration. Not likely to bring young people from around the world to Denver.

John Paul is no scoundrel. Still, his pontificate has been a roller-coaster ride of scintillating international achievement and acclaim mixed with dogged, restrictive domestic church policies. He, like everyone else, shines when he praises and is positive, but repels when he condemns and is negative. Experts may argue about which posture is most effective -- and anyway effectiveness is harder to judge when eternal salvation is the objective. Yet, very few people prefer naysayers.

Thus, on the eve of Denver, people wondered which John Paul would show up: the curmudgeon or the prophet. The media expected the former, and had to work hard to vindicate their forecasts, making church discontent their main theme throughout. But, on balance, the pontiff transcended what seems a natural suspicion, if not a downright dislike, of materialistic America, and wooed the world from that mile-high pulpit.

There are good times and tough times to be pope. When easier answers to life's tougher questions are to be found elsewhere, a pope might as well lie low. But as luck or the Holy Spirit would have it, we have a thoroughly high-profile pope at the very moment the world seems clean out of more obvious solutions to what ails us.

So the young people were in Denver not just for a party. They were on that search, begun long ago by their ancestors, for meaning. Everywhere there is talk of a hunger: for answers, for understanding, for someone to show the way. Not just the young people, either. The hankering seems seldom in history to have been more widespread.

The pope has been accused, among other things, of being a bad listener. He did some token listening in Denver. One can only hope that be heard, above all that noise, the real cry of the people; and that, hearing it, he will, instead of condemning, affirm the vision that has remained so fresh and untarnished and upbeat since the time of Christ.

It could make him a totally awesome pope.
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Title Annotation:Editorial; papal visit to Colorado, 1993
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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