By the time Pope John Paul II ended his historic American tour early last month, he had managed to win the admiration of millions of U.S. citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Those who saw the pontiff in person seemed even more electrified by the papal presence than those who watched his movements on television.

American atheists, however, were not so enamored. Madalyn Murray O’Hair sought a federal court order, on grounds of church-state separation, to block the use of the Washington Mall for the Pope’s final celebration of mass in this country. She lost.

Mrs. O’Hair was furious to learn that Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, defending the right of the Roman Catholic Church to hold the mass on public-owned property.

(Americans United had supported a suit—filed by the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., and the American Civil Liberties Union—that sought to prevent the city of Philadelphia from using public funds to pay for an altar and platform from which the Pope celebrated mass.)

In Chicago, Mrs. O’Hair led a march of atheists, feminists, and gay rights activists into Grant Park, where the Pope was holding a public mass. Their protest that the church is “oppressive” was swallowed up by the presence of more than one million of the committed and curious.

Yet, for the most part, the balances tipped far in favor of the Pope and the American Catholic Church during the papal visit. The sheer magnitude of this present-day symbol of Christ and modern successor of Peter, plus his influence over more than 700 million Catholics worldwide, is awe-inspiring to many people, despite personal thoughts or feelings about the papacy.

John Paul’s week-long visit to America was ...

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