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Popestock in Chicago

John Paul's winning battle in a losing war

Keystone/Getty Images

A well-known 19th-century mural by James Ensor depicts with mock solemnity "The Triumphal Entry of Christ into Brussels," A big brass band, a cheering crowd, an army of city fathers, and an avalanche of ribbons, pennants, and banners engulf the hapless Christ, and nearly shove him off the canvas. Pope John Paul's amazing feat in Chicago was to have overwhelmed the event that was meant to overwhelm him.

Chicago had been in deadly earnest for at least a month about the pope's 36-hour visit here on October 4-6. The largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States (2.4 million), the home of the most Polish ethnics (500,000), Chicago probably was more obsessed with John Paul's arrival than any other city. In fact, the city nearly fell victim to its own build-up of the big event, and began to look on Popestock (or "Popefest" as city officials liked to say) with the same enthusiasm it might have for a nuclear accident evacuation.

For weeks, city officials worried whether the roof of the underground garage in Grant Park, where the pope would celebrate the monster open-air Mass, would buckle and collapse, killing thousands. The city also predicted a catastrophic traffic jam when religious pilgrims and Loop office workers battled each other to get on trains and subways in the Friday rush hour. The Chicago papers ran a relentless series of "human interest" stories on the massive police security preparations and the hundreds of heart attacks and childbirths expected during the Mass, Chicago Democrats predicted the pope's visit would be a greater political disaster for the party than last year's blizzard.

The alarm also spread to the financial pages, as such things quickly do in the City of the Big Shoulders. Tourism officials say that the selling of the pope would net local merchants at least $10 million. But worried industry and trade groups complained that the lost employee time from those who attended the Grant Park mass could result in a $200-million loss of goods and services. Furthermore, they complained that the types of people a pope attracts are not likely to go shopping in Chicago’s big downtown department stores. No doubt local business groups here worry that the Second Coming will be a terrible day for shopping the Loop.

As the day approached, it became more and more evident that the Loop would be almost a ghost town. Traffic in most of the downtown was banned, appointments were canceled, offices were closed, and briefcases packed for a three-day weekend. By Friday the panic had cleared out everyone likely to be in the way of the pilgrims. The trains ran smoothly morning and night without even the normal amount of rush hour congestion. A skeleton crew of lawyers and real estate agents manned the town, and most of them had pope parties planned for that afternoon on the top floors of their favorite Loop skyscrapers.

According to the press, the crowd at the Grant Park mass exceeded all but the wildest expectations. Chicago police estimated the number at 1.5 million. But no one was counting, and acting police chief Joseph DiLeonardi, who kept calling His Holiness "our supreme commander," was not the most objective authority. Some police said it was hard to believe there were more than 500,000 to 750,000 people there—more than a Bears game, maybe, but only so-so by Warsaw standards. Still, even that is an impressive show for a town prized in television circles as the biggest collection of stay-at-homes in America.

A mob in a pasture, even a hushed and peaceful mob as this one was, does not knit well or quickly into a deeply prayerful community; and the pope did not give an evangelical-style performance, or impose his personality on the event as much as one might have expected. Most of the time he was an expressionless dot, surrounded by a sea of bishop dots, The papal throngs were left to their own thoughts, or possibly to their own prayers. During the homily, the pope's slow, husky voice seemed to roll up and down the park for miles, and echo eerily off the walls of the Loop that stood in the distance like a deserted Oz. Not that the homily was by any means stirring or cine of John Paul's best. Most of it presented a patronizing, Vatican-wary appreciation of America's cultural pluralism. “E pluribus unum” the pope chanted several times too often.

The real Popestock raged at the edges of Grant Park, not at its center, as it had raged in record stores, newsstands, and head shops for weeks. Out here the vendors and hawkers had everything on sale except indulgences: pope buttons, pope posters, pope T-Shirts ("I got a peek at the pope"), pope bumper stickers (“Come follow me—John Paul II"), a dozen different souvenir books, Vatican flags, John Paul 11 pennants, and pope record albums. The diocese was not responsible for any of it, of course, but one caught a sense of what Calvin and Martin Luther objected to.

The cold October wind drove many away early, myself included. A rumor went through the crowd that the pope had put on his ski sweater under the vestments. People headed for the trains. The pope buttons were being discounted from one dollar a button to three for a dollar and a half. 

The important event of the Chicago visit was not the Grant Park mass but the address to 350 American bishops at Quigley seminary earlier the same day. The pope told the bishops they must guarantee the integrity of the magisterium (the official body of church teachings). He spoke out for the first time in his reign against artificial birth control, and approved Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. He also reinforced church opposition to extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, and mercy killing. Two days earlier, in Philadelphia, he gave another tough speech to priests and seminarians about the permanence of priestly vows, the need for priestly celibacy, and the importance of an all-male priesthood. (John Paul might have been alarmed to notice that, in the crush of the Grant Park Mass, priests were enlisting all available hands to help pass out communion wafers, without regard to sex or even religious creed.) No doubt the pope did emphasize, in Chicago and in the US generally, the call of all Christians to evangelize.

John Paul did welcome outwardly the cultural pluralism and diversity of viewpoints of the US. But he also made clear his belief in a muscular priestly authority inside the church itself. He reaffirmed some of the most unpopular church doctrines and showed little sympathy with the creeping liberalism, sometimes called "laicization," in the American church.

The conventional wisdom is that John Paul may be a great crowd-pleaser, but he is hopelessly out of touch with the crowd's values. Fortunately for him, this view holds, the United States has a syncretist religious culture typical of corrupt civilizations. Americans generally worship and/or adopt the gods of other tribes, as well as their own. A pope is just another superstar, and a John Paul can fit in the same pantheon as a John Travolta or a Johnny Carson. His theology need not be taken too seriously, or no more seriously than Travolta's.

This view rests on the standard democratic fallacy that personality does not matter in history and that mores and values (even sexual mores and values) are impersonal forces that are immune to personal charisma. But the character of the church itself, it can hardly be doubted, has been and still is the product of the personalities of particular popes. In part, that's what makes a pope so lurid and fascinating a figure to a liberal, democratic society like ours. 

In the early Middle Ages, for example, Gregory VII by sheer force of personality substantially shaped the notions of church and state in the West. It was Gregory, you will recall from your studies, along with certain other clerical fanatics of the 11th century, who wrested control over many church offices away from feudal lords and princes. They even tried deposing emperors. Their war against simony (a kind of "laicization"), their insistence on priestly celibacy, and their stress on a full-dress sacerdotal priesthood set the stage for many of the ideological battles in the church today,

John Paul is at a disadvantage in these battles compared to his predecessor. Gregory at least had the intellectual party in the church mostly on his side. John Paul, who may be the most intellectual of modern pontiffs, has been nearly deserted by the intellectual party. Among American church intellectuals, he is almost isolated.

This may help explain why John Paul is so obsessed with priestly vocations and the need to set an inspirational example for brother clerics. Perhaps, with a long enough reign, and if his charisma holds out, John Paul hopes to acquire an articulate intellectual party of his own in the American church.

The evening of the Grant Park Mass, channel 7 news interviewed two potential seminarians who said that the experience of the pope's visit had decided them on their vocations. Who entered the Chicago seminaries last week, and why, may seem like trivial matters; but they may be the most critical factors over time in determining the importance of John Paul II as pope. If he acquires a party of his own, he may succeed in staving off the democratization of the church long after he himself has departed from the scene, I think he is certain to lose in this effort, but win or lose, his papacy will be a very good show.