Washington (Fides Service) - Several years ago, a petition circulated among the Catholics of some European nations. It was critical of the present structures and policies of the Church and indeed of the Holy Father. I recall that in two of the nations of Europe it managed to attract more than a million signatures each. In the United States, there was a rather active campaign to gather signatures for a similar petition. After several months of intense publicity, the organizers of the American campaign gave up with less than fifty thousand signatures in a Church that numbered some sixty million Catholics! Perhaps this story more than anything illustrates the deep affection and trust that Catholics in the United States have for Pope John Paul II.
In his several visits to our country, the Pope has traveled coast to coast and North to South. He has visited with Catholics of every race and nationality and has always made time for ecumenical gatherings and meetings with leaders of inter-faith communities. He has met with our President and other political leaders, as well as with the poor, the victims of AIDS and intellectual leaders. In the course of these visits, he has encountered millions of people, who have seen him, listened to him, and even touched him. He has become an admired and respected figure in our nation even by those who are not happy with his teaching.
That teaching has been consistent during his American journeys, whether it is enunciated in a major address to the United Nations or the subject of a quiet conversation with a national leader. From the very beginning – for example, his stirring homily at Yankee Stadium during his first visit in 1979 – he has challenged the American people to be more conscious of their responsibility to care for the poor, and not just the poor in their own country, but also the poor of the world. His constant and persistent call for the protection of human life, from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death, also had its beginning at that first American visit, when in the nation’s capital, he challenged the United States to stand for the protection of the unborn child.
Obviously, this central core of his teaching would be met with resistance by many in the United States whose philosophy of life had been formed in the permissiveness of the sixties, and whose attitudes tended to be at least colored by the powerful impact of the media. This unique organ of public opinion in America has always found Pope John Paul a fascinating study. Greeting him at the beginning of his Pontificate as a strong new voice who would change the Church, after a few years they seemed disappointed to recognize that the strong new voice was totally dedicated to the preservation of the deposit of faith and the centuries’ old disciplines that support it. The American media and the American people have not lost their fascination with this Pope, but they seem always surprised by his faithfulness to the Absolutes from which modern American society tends to flee.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States found itself enmeshed in the confusion of many differing interpretations of what the Council really taught. One of Pope John Paul’s greatest gifts to the Church in America has been his clear and unhesitating fidelity to the message of that Council and, twenty five years later, that Conciliar teaching is more evident because of him. This has sometimes produced moments of stress with Catholic institutions and with some theologians, but the Pope has been consistent and unwavering in his proclamation of the Gospel and the Church’s doctrine. Women in the American Catholic community, often uninvited in former times, now find a place in leadership roles in American dioceses because of his encouragement, e.g., the Encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, although there are some who still feel deeply disappointed by the doctrinal decision that they cannot be called to ordination.
As the Holy Father celebrates a quarter century of extraordinary service as Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pastor of the Church, his wisdom and courage in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus is still so much needed in the world. In the United States, where he has criticized an all too facile readiness to take up arms for war and an all too grudging respect for the dignity of human life, the words and actions of this great Pope are a challenge to Catholics and to all men and women of good will to consider carefully the very future of the human race and the need for values that never change.Cardinal McCarrick (Fides Service 14/10/2003)