Video: The Pope and New York

By Hoda Kotb Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/7/2005 8:39:36 PM ET 2005-04-08T00:39:36

The Pope visited the United States almost as much as he visited his Polish homeland. It was an opportunity to communicate directly with the nearly one-quarter of Americans who are Roman Catholics -- a fractious flock, noted for its independence. John Paul's trips across this country were a combination of religious ritual and unrestrained exuberance -- a celebration of the man, if not always his message. Dateline NBC's Hoda Kotb reports.

They came by the millions, American Catholics, drawn to the charisma of this holy man -- John Paul II.

“Even if they were in the 75th row of Yankee Stadium at a mass that he was conducting, they still felt personally connected to him, “ says Chester Gillis, Chair of Theology at Georgetown University and an American Catholic scholar. “That was a great gift. If there were a Ronald Reagan of Catholicism, this was a person. He was a great communicator. While previous Popes had visited American soil, not the number of times that this Pope had visited, or the length or the duration of the time, people didn't have access.”

History's most-traveled pope would change all that, giving Catholics the access they longed for. John Paul would make seven pastoral trips to the United States in all. Traveling to cities across the country, he experienced the diversity of America.

In huge venues like Chicago's Grant Park, New Jersey's Giant Stadium, Denver's Cherry Creek, the inner sanctums of our culture, American Catholics gathered to see their spiritual leader

A gifted linguist, the Holy Father celebrated the unique cultures of his western flock, and electrified crowds.

“They greeted him like a pop star. He was a cultural icon,” says Keith Miller, who was a correspondent with NBC News in Rome in the early 1980's.

Miller made 23 tours with the pope, including two trips to America.

“It was really a lot of fun because you actually felt you were on some sort of mystical mystery tour and had no idea what to expect,” he says.

Amidst the pageantry and publicity, John Paul came to America with a clear purpose.

“He knew he also wanted to be a pastoral teacher,” says Gillis. “It was not simply all charisma. It was message. And he was very clear and on point in his message.”

Whenever he was in America, Pope John Paul delivered that message. Addressing the United Nations in New York, he asked wealthy nations to help their poorer neighbors and called for human rights around the world. The first pontiff ever to visit the White House, he exchanged ideas with five sitting presidents. As a pilgrim of peace, he opposed war, most recently the United States' invasion of Iraq.

He was a voice for those who weren't sharing in America's wealth. He encouraged the country's faithful to live by the gospel, and warned of the temptations of materialism.

He spoke out against abortion and the death penalty and supported the sanctity of life.

He reached out to the country's youth, choosing Denver for his eighth World Youth Day celebration.

Despite his enormous popularity, his message didn't always resonate with all of the church's estimated 67 million American Catholics. On issues like birth control, abortion and divorce, many were not in concert with John Paul.

NBC's Keith Miller recalls giving the pontiff poll numbers that showed many Americans disagreed with him.

“These numbers were overwhelming, and he turned to me and in his halting English he said: "Ah, but I must still provide the message,’" says Miller.

While he condemned the acts of homosexuality, he added that all people should be treated with respect.

Some American Catholics challenged the Holy Father head-on. In her 1979 address to John Paul at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Sister Theresa Kane raised the question of the role of women in all ministries the church.

“For reverence and dignity for all persons by providing the possibility of women as persons being including in all ministries of our church,” says Sister Theresa Kane.

“As much as he did advance women in all other corners of the church and elevated their status and spoke glowingly of them and all, still there was essentially a glass ceiling,” says Gillis.

Despite the resistance among many American Catholics to his teachings, and a decline in weekly church attendance from its all-time high in the 1950's, John Paul held strongly to his core beliefs. Many of the faithful responded by doing what some church observers call, 'defecting in place.'

“Are they disaffected in certain areas?” says Gillis. “Yes. And will they no longer follow the rubrics of the church in certain areas? Yes. Are they alienated from the church in the larger context of their lives? No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I think they're simply going to be Catholics on their terms.”

But a shortage of priests across the country has raised serious concerns for the future of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Some blame the problem in part on the traditional rule of celibacy.

“Celibacy is a discipline of the church,” says Gillis. “It's not a doctrine. It could be changed with a stroke of the pen of the pope.

This is a pope who built his papacy on traditions very much, and was not about to change that tradition.”

To reinforce those traditions, John Paul appointed bishops who were in-step with his views.

“He tended to centralize a lot of the authority and responsibility in the church in Rome,” says Gillis.

Yet in the early days of one of the greatest scandals in the history of the modern church, John Paul would call upon his American bishops to weather the crisis.

“The way he dealt with the sexual scandal in America among the priesthood was to allow the bishops to work it out,” says NBC’s Keith Miller.

“He could not imagine that priests would perpetrate these sinful and criminal acts in the numbers that they did,” says Gillis.

In the wake of reports of widespread sexual abuse committed by priests, and the failures of some bishops in handling cases, critics say the ailing pontiff was slow to respond.

“When it was finally made clear to Pope John Paul II that this is a scandal that's not going away until they hear from you, he convened a meeting of the bishops and demanded that they set up new rules and new ways of investigation abuses and punishing those who carried them out,” says Miller.

With guidance from the Vatican, American bishops adopted a 'zero tolerance' policy, requiring dioceses to remove from ministry any priest guilty of abuse.

The scandal unearthed decades of allegations, involving thousands of priests. According to the United States' Conference of Catholic Bishops, to date, victims’ compensation, treatment for victims and priests and legal fees have cost the church more than $840 million.

Through all the difficult times and the wonderful ones, Pope John Paul remained a popular figure among American Catholics. They remembered those magical days when they prayed with him and sang with him. He was a man who spoke to them in their own language and inspired them.

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