By JULIE DOWNS
CHARLESTON — Bishop David B. Thompson found the recent visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States a completely positive experience, from the inspired crowds and the well-organized logistics to the pope himself, whose impact and challenging message have not been tempered by time or age.
The pope visited St. Louis Jan. 26-27. Bishop Thompson was among the hundreds of thousands in the city for the visit where the pope had his traditional rapport with young people and re-affirmed his opposition to capital punishment, an issue the bishop also recently addressed.
The bishop said he thought the pope was gracious in not addressing the current impeachment crisis when he met President Clinton upon his arrival in St. Louis, adding that the pope “appealed to the best in all of us in his remarks. He called us to generosity.” He also said the current turmoil in the country may have contributed to the tremendous response the pope received.
“People are searching for ideals and those who live by those ideals. In Pope John Paul II they have found just that. He not only preaches the ideals, and teaches the ideals, he lives by them … In our country, at this time, here is the ideal,” Bishop Thompson said.
Pope John Paul II always has a significant impact with young people. A youth rally was held for him at the Kiel Center on Jan. 26, attended by an energetic crowd of 20,000. The rally featured loud, enthusiastic Gospel music, prompting organizers to supply the bishops in attendance with earplugs, but Bishop Thompson declined, referring to his time as a high school principal who inaugurated a weekly dance for his students. “From my days as ‘Father Bandstand,’ I felt right at home.” The bishop noted that, especially when he is with young people, the pope shows that “age does not still the spirit.”
“As old as the pope looked, the young people considered him one of them. He speaks their language. He never scolds them. He always admires them, encourages them, praises them, because they are young,” he said.
A capacity crowd of more than 100,000 filled the Trans-World Dome for Mass the following day. Bishop Thompson described the Mass as “magnificently done” commending the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Archbishop Justin Rigali as well as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Huge screens projected images, words and songs instantly to the faithful, he said. The music was wonderful and even Holy Communion for 100,000 was handled both efficiently and reverently, he added.
In his homily, the pope called for a Christian vision that was “unconditionally pro-life” and described capital punishment as “both cruel and unnecessary.” It was a topic Bishop Thompson addressed in December speaking out against the use of the death penalty in South Carolina. The bishop said Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis joked to him: “You gave the Holy Father a line to say.” Bishop Thompson replied: “No, he gave that to me.”
He said that on the plane ride to St. Louis a fellow passenger inquired how he was able to get tickets for the pope’s visit. He told her: “I play on his team. I am one of his bishops … and I am very proud to be on his team.” More than 1,000 priests concelebrated Mass and Bishop Thompson estimated that three-fourths of the bishops in attendance were appointed by Pope John Paul II. “We are very much his team.”
Bishop Thompson said the sense of unity imparted by the brief visit is something that he continues to find inspiring about the pope’s presence among the faithful.
“Everything was very positive. There were no demonstrations, no marches … total union. It always amazes me. Thousands and thousands of people all united around this one person. They just love the guy, even though he challenges them.”