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Historic visit demonstrated Pope's charisma

The Globe and Mail, Sept. 22, 1984

"I don't know what long-term impact it's going to have on the Canadian people. But it's going to challenge them in a very direct way to renew their own spiritual lives and be open to the Gospel." -Most Rev. John Sherlock, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Coming as it does from such a biased perspective, that statement will be taken by many with a grain of salt. Yet the 12- day pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II, made at an exhausting pace that humbled even the most cynical journalists, was a historic event of momentous proportions.

It reaffirmed - if there was any doubt - the Polish Pope's remarkable drawing power. And even though church figures tended to exaggerate the size of the open- air papal masses, millions of Canadians - Catholics and non-Catholics alike - saw the Pope in person or on television and read about him in reams upon reams of newspaper copy.

Whether people responded simply to an obviously deeply spiritual man, his message of peace and faith, out of curiosity for his almost cultish following, the staged-managed extravaganzas, or his gentle and absorbing demeanor when visiting the sick and handicapped, is difficult to say.

Many people, including those whose job is to assess these things, are still reeling from the gruelling whirlwind trip. Others are waiting for some time to elapse before offering more frank appraisals.

The Pope had lots to say. He delivered 34 scripted sermons and speeches. He ad- libbed a number of times, revealing in the process that while he reads many languages well (drawing on the theatrical experience of his youth), his English, for example, is shaky.

But it was what he said and how he said it that counted.

In his swing through Quebec, the Pope concentrated on the link between faith and culture. In Flat Rock, Nfld., he argued for a restructuring of the economy to put people ahead of profits.

In Toronto, the mishandling of an ecumenical Christian prayer service to which non-Christians were invited alienated and embarrassed some representatives of other faiths. The Pope may have tried to make up for the service at St. Paul's Anglican Church and a similar misunderstanding at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton after celebrating an open-air mass in Namao, Alta.

Without specifically referring to the controversy, he said: "We are looking and working towards the unity of Christians, but we are looking also to the non- Christian religions, to all the people who believe in God. . . . With all of them we unite towards our common destiny, which is destiny in God himself." It was in the Pope's sermon in Namao that he raised his voice to a hitherto unaccustomed anger and thundered against people "amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others." You could see him seethe with moral indignation.

Fog prevented the Pope from landing in Fort Simpson to lend his support to aboriginal rights. Instead, he had to settle for reading his text before television cameras in the tiny Yellowknife, NWT, air terminal, where his plane had been diverted.

His disappointment in not meeting Dene, Inuit and Metis on their own turf was keen, so keen that he invited himself back to Canada specifically to visit Fort Simpson.

In Vancouver, the Pope repeated unshakeable Roman Catholic Church teaching on divorce, pre- marital sex, marriage and abortion. On these subjects, he appeared uncompromising. For example, he said abortion is an "unspeakable crime against human life" that "sets the stage for despising, negating and eliminating the life of adults, and for attacking the life of society." At a private meeting with Canada's bishops, the Pope spoke of the need to strengthen the family and said the church should proclaim its traditional doctrines whether they are popular or not.

Many themes emerged throughout the visit, and the Pope's words could be taken a number of ways. He returned time and again to the the materialism of western industrial nations and warned of "a humanism without reference to God." At the same time, he attacked "systems" that emasculate and urged Canadian priests to be more outspoken against religious persecution in many parts of the world.

Peace and the threat of a nuclear holocaust were often on his mind. In Ottawa, on the final leg of his visit, the Pope suggested strongly that Canada has an important role to play in the search for peace. "It is important to state again and again," he told Ottawa's political, bureaucratic and diplomatic elite at a Rideau Hall reception, "that war is made in the hearts and minds of the men and women of our times, and that true peace will come about only when the hearts and minds of all are converted to compassion, to justice and to love." It was a powerful message, one that deeply moved many, including former Progressive Conservative MP Douglas Roche, now president of the United Nations Association in Canada, and Governor-General Jeanne Sauve. "Most Holy Father," said Mrs. Sauve, "you may be assured that people in this country will understand that they cannot rest in complacency with our own security and comfort and that, in answer to your call, support for others must both continue and increase. "It is still too early to try to measure the moral and spiritual impact of your pilgrimage. Nevertheless, I can assure you - and the welcome you have received everywhere attests to this - that all of Canada has followed you, heard you and understood your words." From what one could tell from smoke-filled jets, buses, media centres, along motorcade routes and at papal event sites, there didn't seem to be much, if any, opposition to the Pope's presence. That may have resulted partly from the almost oppressive security net that was cast over the entire visit.

Bishop Sherlock preferred to see it another way: "What I saw was a sea of smiling faces and sometimes, not infrequently, weeping - people weeping with emotion and joy when the Holy Father passed. . . . "It will remain in my memory for all my life, the tremendous profound impression and the light in people's eyes and the obvious joy radiating in them after they'd seen him for only seconds." That emotion was profoundly felt at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto where the Pope met Canadians and Americans of Polish extraction. The Pope spoke to them and to his fellow countrymen when he said that banners for the Polish trade union Solidarity symbolize "an order in which man finds himself at the centre." That remark is from a man who says Jesus Christ stands as his centre.

It is not easy to calculate the long-term impact of such a charismatic figure on pleas for a renewed commitment to the faith.

An hour after the Pope left Canada, Bishop Sherlock made an attempt: "What has happened here is that there has been a new moment of evangelizaton in Canadian history, 450 years after Jacques Cartier planted the cross at Gaspe. We've had a new and powerful re-evangelization of Canadians."

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