There were 20,000 of them, and they greeted him like he was a rock star. With a charismatic leader's sense of timing, a frail, aging Pope John Paul II responded in kind, smiling and joking with the youthful crowd crammed into Kiel Center in Saint Louis.
While they are excited about the pope, Catholic youth are even less responsive to church teachings than their parents, according to a new University of Chicago study. It shows that they overwhelmingly favor ordination of female priests and allowing priests to marry, and few believe premarital sex is always wrong.
The assembled were part of a massive Catholic all-day, three-part religious and music rally held during John Paul II's visit here. Now 78, he continues to enjoy a special rapport with young people. The pontiff challenged them "to be the light of the world. … The pope believes in you and he expects great things of you!"
The Saint Louis appearance—a 30-hour stop after the pope spent four days in Mexico City—included a 20-minute meeting with President Clinton, the fourth time the two leaders have met, and an enormous mass at the Trans World Dome.
The pope called for Americans to do away with the death penalty, end racism, and uphold the family as the foundation of society. He urged listeners to defend life by opposing abortion and euthanasia. He was at his best at the Kiel Center. The event demonstrated the pope's ongoing connection with kids and the Catholic church's knack for making good use of contemporary worship and music trends more often seen among evangelical Protestants.
"The pope presents a perspective on God and faith that is universal," said Gary Braun, director of the Catholic Student Center at Washington University. "They want to see our shepherd."
During the day, hard-driving Christian singers helped keep spirits lively. The youngsters sang, cheered, prayed, and heard Christian testimonies in the hours leading up to the papal appearance.
The most telltale sign that familiar evangelical symbols have crossover potential in the Church of Rome were the juxtaposition of two familiar images—the papal profile replete with miter and shepherd's crook on signs and banners and the well-known evangelical initialism WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) on sweatshirts worn by young people.
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