For Canadians of many religious faiths or none at all, the historic first papal visit that ended last week was a beginning. In the dozen days of his travels across Canada, Pope John Paul II scattered seeds of thought and action that are certain to germinate as the tumult of his visit dies. The impact of his mission is felt in fields both secular and spiritual. It tested the resolve of government, church and business. It set goals for native peoples and the disadvantaged. It challenged all Canadians to live in charity. Believe him or not, like it or not, Canada is left with a legacy of ideas and images that will profoundly color its future.
Even before the Pope boarded an Air Canada L-1011 aircraft in Ottawa last Thursday night for his flight home, the visit generated a cacophony of plaudits and criticism, interpretations and debate. Responses spanned the chasm between ecstasy and a shrug. For the vast majority the papal visit was a spiritual tonic and a rivetting historical event. For the few, it was a lavishly tedious media annoyance. The visit was a public relations coup for the Canadian Catholic church. But it was also a disappointment for some non-Christians, women and native groups. For John Paul, 64, six years into his papacy and three years after surviving an assassination attempt, it was both a political and physical success. He returned to Rome apparently unscathed from ventures into fields of controversy and from the endurance test of an itinerary that packed 60 public events into 12 days. “I’m satisfied,” the Pope said simply, as he neared home and a rest. To reporters on his flight he said he was pleased by the way Canadians responded to his visit: “I didn’t expect such an attitude.”
The statistical story of the papal pilgrimage is a list of superlatives. In all, John Paul journeyed an average of 1,000 km a day in Canada—the longest in time and distance of his 24 foreign trips as Pope. He visited 16 cities and towns in eight provinces—all but Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island—and the Northwest Territories. Although some of the 18 major open-air papal events were battered by rain and wind, only a scheduled 19th at Fort Simpson, N.W.T., had to be cancelled when heavy fog prevented his plane from landing. The cancellation was an open disappointment on both sides. His personal regret prompted John Paul in Ottawa to suggest a return visit. Then he smiled and in hesitant English he apologized for inviting himself back to Canada.
The suggestion of a return visit brought applause from the Ottawa airport audience of church and government dignitaries led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. But it provided no comfort to the Mounties and other police responsible for John Paul’s safety. The Pope confirmed the worst fears of the bodyguards. They dogged his every public move and they were visibly concerned on the frequent occasions when he flouted security to grasp outstretched hands, kiss a child or bless a supplicant.
Beyond the numerical facts of his visit, the Pope appeared to leave Canadians somewhat puzzled over how his activities and declarations might be put to use, publicly and personally. Catholic church leaders, non-Catholic counterparts and others among the estimated 3.3 million who attended tour events began the perplexing task of decoding John Paul’s many
E ON A HUMAN MISSION
“Thousands will say they looked him in the face, hundreds will say he touched them, and thousands will feel their lives were affected by his strength and his peace.”
Archbishop A. L. Penney,
St. John's, Nfld., Archdiocese.
“I have been struck by the fact that he touches people and they want to touch him.”
-Rev. Michael Stogre, Jesuit priest, Toronto.
“The church was humanized in the body of this man.”
-Bishop Gerard Dionne, Edmundston, N.B.
speeches and extracting some lasting value. Said United church minister Robin Smith of Toronto: “He’s gone. Now the work begins.” It is a daunting task. John Paul delivered 56 public sermons and addresses in Canada. His English was laborious, his French less so. Often his message was subtle, his language biblical. Despite his advance reputation as a rockribbed traditionalist, observers encountered a dilemma trying to pigeonhole the Pope. Generally, but not always, John Paul was labelled conservative on questions of personal morality—firmly opposing abortion and birth control—but liberal on issues of public morality, such as supporting the rights of workers to have a stake in the means of production.
Clearly, the Pope left uncertainty hanging over some matters, but there were other issues on which he left no doubt about his stand. A sermon in Edmonton about the responsibilities of rich nations to the poor was one occassion on which he was unequivocal. In his most dramatic display of emotion, John Paul cited the plight of the poor southern half of the globe and warned that “this poor south will judge the rich north.” But the forceful Edmonton appearance, before an open-air congregation of about 125,000 at Namao armed forces base, highlighted a peculiar feature of the papal tour. It was the way in which the human gestures of the Pope as a world celebrity unwittingly upstage the Pope as pastor, distracting attention from his moral message. For many in his Edmonton audience, the most durable remembrance may well be his lighthearted throwaway about the rough weather that hit parts of his tour. His white robe lashed by a brisk wind, the Pope remarked: “You asked, perhaps, what is my opinion about Canada. Canada is a big, big country. It is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy. And rather windy.”
Those glimpses of the man within the myth tend to linger more vividly than the nuances of his doctrines. The visual memories—the trundling glass Popemobile, the reaching to people at the end of an outdoor mass, the hugs for children or the touching of people in wheelchairs—also have a lasting impact. Said Toronto Jesuit Michael Stogre: “I have been struck by the fact that he touches people and they want to touch him. It isn’t the adulation of a rock star, where they want to rip his clothes off. Its more gentle, tender. Maybe there is a need for that in this culture.” Added Bishop Gérard Dionne of Edmundston, N.B.: “The church was humanized in the body of this man.”
The Pope assailed materialism, consumerism and those who put “profit ahead of people.” He spoke favorably in Flatrock, Nfld., of co-operative enterprise and sharing company ownership with employees. He also called for “a restructuring of the economy.” In Edmonton he cited approvingly an encyclical by former pope Paul VI which said: “It is not just a matter of eliminating hunger or even reducing poverty— It is a question rather of building a world where every man, no matter what his race, religion or nationality, can live a fully human life, freed from the servitude forced on him by other men or by natural forces.”
John Paul returned to the theme of need and the responsibility of the rich at the close of his tour in Ottawa. In remarks at a Government House reception, the Pope called upon the new Mulroney government to press strenuously for world peace and to be aware that, despite Canada’s economic problems, much of the rest of the world is far worse off and needs help. That challenge to Canada to give of its good fortune for the world’s well-being seemed likely to remain the main secular message long after the giant of christendom had left.
With Jane O'Hara and Diane Luckow in Vancouver, Gordon Legge in Edmonton, Sandra Souchotte in Yellowknife, Andrew Nikiforuk in Winnipeg and Karen Nicholson in Ottawa.
“All of a sudden he came over and kissed me on the forehead. Oh my God.”
-Michelle Rose, 9, Edmonton.
“Where the visit affected us was in our door-to-door work. We found people more willing to talk about religion. It was like the spirit of Christmas.”
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