Monday, January 26, 2009

The Pope and the Arch

Speaking of PopeTrips, it's especially worth recalling that a decade ago on this day -- 26 January 1999 -- Pope John Paul II arrived in St Louis for what would be his final visit to these shores.

Clocking in at just over 30 hours, the briefest of the late pontiff's six Stateside swings provided a fitting coda to Karol Wojtyla's love affair with America -- the Pope who liked his events big presided over what remains the largest indoor gathering in the nation's history as 105,000 crammed into the TransWorld Dome for one final Mega Mass, and the actor and playwright briefly traded in his cane for one last memorable prop: a hockey stick (right) given him during the youth rally at the Kiel Center.

Earlier this month, the milestone received a Roman nod as its lead local organizer was (gratefully... at long last...) named a bishop. What's more, the other shoe will, of course, drop in the Gateway City when Pope Benedict names the ninth archbishop of the "Rome of the West," whose 560,000-member local church traces its history to 1826.

And when will that be, you ask? Suffice it to say, all good things in God's time. In the meantime, though, it's worth recalling one of the Polish Pope's more memorable love-songs to this land, delivered as he departed Detroit following his epic, two-week visit in 1987 (emphases original):
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 defenceless 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" (Washington Airport, 7 October 1979).
...of course, no memory of the Great One would be complete without re-running a certain house favorite, so here goes...