Monday, September 17, 2007

The Grand Tour... 20 Years On

Sure, the genie might be out of the bottle on the next papal pilgrimage to these shores... but lest we forget, this fortnight of mid-September marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's most extensive visit to the States, an 11-day haul that took the Journeyman Pope to Detroit, New Orleans, San Antonio, Columbia, Los Angeles, Miami, "Paradise" (i.e. Monterey, CA), San Francisco, and Phoenix.

The thousands of moments and stories from that trip live on in their retellings, but the best summary of why he came and what he sought to do can be found in the words of the late Great's own farewell address, delivered at Detroit Airport on 19 September '87.

Snip; emphases original:
As I leave, I express my gratitude to God also for what he is accomplishing in your midst. With the words of Saint Paul, I too can say with confident assurance "that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1, 6-7). And so I am confident too that America will be ever more conscious of her responsibility for justice and peace in the world. As a nation that has received so much, she is called to continued generosity and service towards others.

As I go, I take with me vivid memories of a dynamic nation, a warm and welcoming people, a Church abundantly blessed with a rich blend of cultural traditions. I depart with admiration for the ecumenical spirit that breathes strongly throughout this land, for the genuine enthusiasm of your young people, and for the hopeful aspirations of your most recent immigrants. I take with me an unforgettable memory of a country that God has richly blessed from the beginning until now.

America the beautiful! So you sing in one of your national songs. Yes, America, you are beautiful indeed, and blessed in so many ways:

- in your majestic mountains and fertile plains;
- in the goodness and sacrifice hidden in your teeming cities and expanding suburbs;
- in your genius for invention and for splendid progress;
- in the power that you use for service and in the wealth that you share with others;
- in what you give to your own, and in what you do for others beyond your borders;
- in how you serve, and in how you keep alive the flame of hope in many hearts;
- in your quest for excellence and in your desire to right all wrongs.

Yes, America, all this belongs to you. But your greatest beauty and your richest blessing is found in the human person: in each man, woman and child, in every immigrant, in every native-born son and daughter.

For this reason, America, your deepest identity and truest character as a nation is revealed in the position you take towards the human person. The ultimate test of your greatness in the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.

The best traditions of your land presume respect for those who cannot defend themselves. If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person:

- feeding the poor and welcoming refugees;
- reinforcing the social fabric of this nation;
- promoting the true advancement of women;
- securing the rights of minorities;
- pursuing disarmament, while guaranteeing legitimate defence; all this will succeed only if respect for life and its protection by the law is granted to every human being from conception until natural death.

Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival-yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenceless ones, those as yet unborn.

With these sentiments of love and hope for America, I now say goodbye in words that I spoke once before: "Today, therefore, my final prayer is this: that God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become - and truly be - and long remain one Nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all."
To celebrate the anniversary, Detroit's posted the papal audio and texts from its stop, San Antonio's got a museum exhibit up and running, and victim-survivors lobbied for a speaking slot at Phoenix's commemoration of the visit.

Much and more could be said, but just two things stick out.

One of the journey's more pointed moments came during a dialog session in Miami. A Jersey priest sought to be honest with the Pope, laying out the way things were and the changes that, he thought, would be useful for the future.

John Paul, of course, loved to sing, and he shot back promptly with the one liner that “I remember a song, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary.’”

(On a side note, Papa Wojtyla loved "Tipperary" so much that, thanks to the mispronunciation of a certain aide -- now a cardinal -- he once serenaded a group of executives from the Tupperware corporation with it. At least, that's the legend.)

And, lastly, the visit's LA portion brought one of the "pontificate of images'" most moving moments when, at a meeting with the young, Tony Melendez -- a Nicaragua-born guitarist born without arms -- played for John Paul.

Here, in a video from a later concert, Melendez recalls the story and re-sings his song heard 'round the world, "Never Be the Same"....