Local News Archive
Print Issue: September 17, 1987
60,000 Welcome Pope To South
By Rita McInerney
The pilgrim pope, John Paul II, preached on the sacred reality of love and family before more than 60,000 people on Friday evening, Sept. 11, in Williams-Brice Stadium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
For both the pope and his affectionate audience, the ecumenical service capped a long and historic day. For those in the huge stadium, waiting for many hours in the hot sun, his presence and preaching compensated for any inconvenience or discomfort encountered in reaching this destination.
The interfaith service at the stadium was the highlight of an unprecedented visit by the pope to the Southern Bible Belt, where Catholics are a tiny minority, and was seen as a symbolic gesture of support to Southern Catholics and of outreach to the many Christians of other denominations in the region.
The pope's eloquent appeal for the strengthening of family ties, the faithfulness of husband and wife, and the support of Christian communities to sustain couples in their life, was enthusiastically and repeatedly applauded.
Educating children, the "splendid gift of God's goodness," in the essential values of human life, making them aware that, above all, "man is more precious for what he is that what he has," was another expression of his well-known concern for Americans' preoccupation with materialism.
Frequently his words indicated awareness of the "issues" so endlessly examined by press and television in the days before his arrival in Miami. And yet, like the pastor who preaches against missing Mass, his stadium congregation was an assembly of active Catholics who, in the main, extend him their warm support.
Catholics from the archdiocese of Atlanta, 5,000 in number, were scattered all around the modern stadium.
They were very much a part of the "church in miniature, the domestic church," the place where the Gospel is transmitted and "from which the Gospel radiates to other families and the whole of society," he told the throng in the strong, accented voice as welcome in Australia and Brazil as it was this day in Protestant South Carolina.
And there were thousands of "domestic churches" in the soaring stadium where the pigskin is venerated on autumn weekends. Tired children were cradled in loving arms, grandmothers were supported with tender concern, and subdued teenagers were willing "go-fers" for cold drinks.
He mentioned cultural pressures that impact upon relations between generations, parental authority, and the transmission of sacred values. "Our Christian conscience should be deeply concerned about the way in which sins against love and sins against life are often presented as examples of progress and emancipation. Most often are they not but the age-old forms of selfishness dressed up in a new language and presented in a new cultural framework?" he asked to resounding applause.
He spoke of the problems that result from the false notion of individual freedom at work in today's culture. In a voice that echoed around the stadium, he listed refusing to assume responsibility or put curbs on instincts and passions as false freedoms and said true freedom "implies we are capable of choosing a good without constraint.
"This is the truly human way of proceeding in the choices -- big and small -- which life puts before us. The fact that we are also able to choose not to act as we see we should is a necessary condition of our moral freedom. But in that case, we must account for the good that we fail to do and for the evil that we commit. The sense of moral responsibility needs to be reawakened if society is to survive as a civilization of justice and solidarity."
" It would be a great tragedy for the entire human family if the United States, which prides itself on its consecration to freedom, were to lose sight of the true meaning of that noble word. America: you cannot insist on the right to choose, without also insisting on the duty to choose well, the duty to choose truth. Already there is much breakdown and pain in your society because fundamental values, essential to the well-being of individuals, families and the entire nation, are being emptied of their real content." Perhaps most prolonged applause of the evening greeted this strong admonition.
There is awareness throughout this land, he continued of the urgent need to recapture the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values. " We must be convinced that only by recognizing the primacy of moral values can we use the immense possibilities offered by science and material progress to bring about the true advancement of the human person in truth, freedom and dignity. As Christians, our specific contribution is to bring the wisdom of God's word to bear on the problems of modern living in such a way that modern culture will be led to a more profoundly restored covenant with divine Wisdom itself."
As he began his homily, the pope recognized the ecclesiastical communities taking part in this "joy-filled gathering. Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, members of the United Church of Christ and of other Reformed churches, Disciples of Christ, members of the peace churches, Pentecostals, members of the Polish National Catholic Church and Catholics."
He greeted church leaders on the platform with him, in chairs along the sidelines, and the faithful of numerous other denominations in the stands: "Brothers and sisters, we are divided in many ways in our faith and in our discipleship. But we are here together today as sons and daughters of the one Father, calling upon the one Lord Jesus Christ, in the love which the same Holy Spirit pours forth into our hearts. Let us give thanks to God and let us rejoice in this fellowship! And let us commit ourselves further to the great task which Jesus himself urges upon us: to go forward along the path of Christian reconciliation and unity without obstructing the ways of divine providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit."
A vision of how glorious such unity could be was glimpsed as a long procession of 500 Christian ministers flowed onto the field from the north end of the stadium and walked to their seats on the sidelines. Programmed between the celebration of the family in Scripture reading, narration and music and the prayer service of the Word, it brought the throng to its feet in astonished joy.
It was a religious pageant without a single golden vestment, mitre or sceptre. Cloistered Carmelites veiled in ethereal white, monks in rough grey and brown led the file on each side of the gridiron. Behind them were church doctors, their academic robes brilliantly touched in red and purple, nuns in tailored blues, women clergy in starched white or flowing red surplices, Anglicans in clerical grey, bearded Orthodox churchmen in unrelieved black, priests in surplices or suits, a nun in a wheelchair, cardinals in red birettas. It was diversity in all its splendor.
As awe-struck young people watched from the stands, two groups of teenagers slowly carried a large wooden cross and a banner of the Resurrection to the area in front of the platform where both symbols of Christianity were raised.
Before he departed the platform, the pope greeted and blessed each member of the children's choir who lined up for his blessing. It was about 8:15 p.m. when he was whisked away to the airport.
The pope spoke after reading the gospel during an ecumenical "Service of Christian Witness. The service followed an unprecedented meeting between the pope and 26 Christian leaders from around the nation at the home of the university president.
These same Christian leaders sat on stage with the pontiff in the stadium's end zone. They were joined by several Catholic cardinals and bishops, including Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler of Charleston, in whose diocese Columbia is located, and Cardinal Joseph L Bernardin of Chicago, a Columbia native and former student at the University of South Carolina.
The celebrating of commitment that concluded the service was led by Cardinal Bernardin. By this time, many were leaving the stands, heading for the fields packed solidly with buses, vans, cars, jeeps, station wagons and pick-up trucks.
Many had been in the stands since the gates opened at 2 p.m. Others had inched their way, packed into slowly moving crowds, to gates where security personnel coped with checking each ticket holder through metal detectors and counters where totes and camera bags were searched.
Crowds outside and inside were patient and good-humored. There was concern for young fathers and mothers holding babies, for the elderly caught up in the mob and for those overcome by the heat and press of the crowd.
Once inside, many took refuge from the heat in cool concrete caverns under the stadium. Out under the baking sun of the stadium, people quickly abandoned plans to stroll about to other sections in the hope of finding friends.
Instead, they contented themselves with checking out banners, peering through field glasses and craning necks. The signs spoke of long trips and short rides; Our Lady of Fatima in Bensalem, PA, told everyone "We Love You, Holy Father," and Our Lady Queen of Angels in Thomson, GA, said "We Love Our Pope." Another was lyrical, "Carolina With Karola."
Ticket holders were allowed to enter the stadium at 2 p.m. and were told to be in no later than 4 p.m., but it was nearly 5:30 before the service began.
Actor Richard Thomas narrated a program of Scripture reading and music. Actors MacDonald Carey and Michael Keaton and actresses Bonita Granville and Jane Wyatt read about the family, with music by various choirs, soloists and the university symphony.
It was nearly 7 p.m. before the pope arrived, and those present -- many of whom had waited more than nine hours -- greeted him with applause and cheers.
Actress Helen Hayes and pro basketball player Alex English, a graduate of the University, read Bible passages on the family, then gave personal accounts of the importance of family and faith in their lives.
During the service, crowds on the field and in the stands joined hands for the Lord's Prayer, with many present adding the traditional Protestant ending, "for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever."
Love was the mood of the day, offered generously to the white-clad successor of St. Peter on the large platform decorated with banners and flowers in the papal white and yellow, and extended freely to family, friends and strangers.
It was in this mood the people departed, tired yet refreshed by the message and the music, and carrying home in their hearts the promise to work for unity they had made to Cardinal Bernardin as the prayer service ended.