So the Pope came to America to set the record straight, to give the last infallible word on the church's most disputed doctrines, and to dazzle non-Catholics in his self-appointed role as the global conscience, It was a tightly run, elaborately choreographed show that ran for nine days last September.
The Pope's press men went to great lengths to craft a papal schedule that would include "meetings" with members of groups that have long felt snubbed, or at best neglected, by the church. Along with leaders of other religions, the list included talks with black Catholics (who make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. Catholic population), Native American Catholics, Catholic deacons (lay ministers who do nearly everything a priest does, without the pay and prestige) and their wives, and Hispanic community leaders throughout the South and Southwest. Nowhere on the Pontiff's schedule, though, was there a meeting specifically geared to Catholic women, even nuns.
Perhaps it was because the Vatican had not forgotten the sting of Sister Theresa Kane's dramatic on-camera appeal to the Pope in 1979 that these meetings took the form of what the press office of the Holy See calls "structured dialogues"--Vaticanspeak for the exchange of speeches that have been approved ahead of time by the Pope's men.
Media access to these nonpublic events was as restricted as the guest lists. The media were divided into press pools, meaning that the fifty or so journalists admitted to a given event were supposed to share some of their information, video clips, audio tape or photographs with those of us who sat in a press center in some hotel watching the event on television. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops chose who went and who stayed behind. I had received my press credentials as a reporter for Ms. magazine. I did not get admitted to any pool event that I had requested, and began to feel that the letters "MS" that appeared on my press tags were scarlet.
During the Pope's tour, I caught up with Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law, the prelate often described as "the Pope's man" by the press, the day after the Pontiff had told the bishops that God does not want women priests. Cardinal Law was in the front row of the first-class section of Shepherd II, one of two L-1011s that served as papal press planes. I introduced myself as a reporter for Ms. and asked him for comment on the Pop's remarks. He was most obliging and gracious, and as I eased into the seat next to his, he leaned toward me as if he was taking me into his confidence.
"There are two principles that need to be borne in mind," Cardinal Law told me, looking me square in the eye. "First, the fundamental equality of all persons. Secondly, the specific equality...of feminine humanity. He didn't say [this] but I think this is what the Holy Father meant: that the price of that equality must not come at the expense of what it means to be feminine."
"And what would you say that was?" I asked. "How would you define that?"
"I don't know," he replied. "That's something that needs to be understood and experienced more deeply."
Having got the standard separate-but-equal Vatican response, I thanked him for his time. But as I stood up, he asked me what I had felt while following the Pope. I was rather surprised by the question.
Well, I admitted, I was often quite moved by the pageantry and, yes, my heartbeat did quicken at the sight of the Pope. "but often I was angry," I said, "especially about the ordination issue."
"Oh, I know, I understand," he said, showing all outward signs of compassion. "It must be very hard for you." That is why it is so important for us to define the feminine, he contended. The seatbelt sign was on by now, so I shook his hand.
"Got bless you," he said to me.
"God bless you, Your Eminence," I replied, eager to return to the tourist-class world of the press corps, where I was more equal than separate.
Some of the journalists with whom I traveled seemed disappointed by the lack of heated protest throughout the journey, at least until we got to the West Coast. Many apparently missed the significance of peculiar kind of broad protest that John Paul confronted in every city he went to--apathy. Everywhere the Pope went, hundreds of thousands of people--those who were supposed to be joyously lining the route of the papal motorcade--were absent. In Miami, 300,000 were expected, but only 25,000 showed up. In Columbia, South Carolina, on-fifth the number expected turned out. In Los Angeles, only 200,000 of the 2 million expected made it to the parade. Crowd projections in San Antonio were at least 200,000 over the mark.
Local television stations were quick to take the blame. Newscasters either apologized for scaring people away with their advance reports of anticipated traffic tie-ups or boasted that their coverage of the papal visit was so good that viewers opted to stay home in front of the tube, where they could see more of the Pontiff than they could in person. (I found that latter excuse rather doubtful. You can probably get a better view of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from your Trinitron than you would standing on Broadway, but the crowds still turn out for Bullwinkle.)
The lack of papal groupies must have astounded the men from the Vatican and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops who had prepared the Pontiff's itinerary so carefully. Most of the cities visited by the Pope were targeted for their large Hispanic populations. Since Hispanics will make up more than half the U.S. Catholic population by the turn of the century, they are the great brown hope of the Vatican, which is county on them to set the church back on course by bringing their fervent piety and ethic of machismo to the mainstream of American Catholicism--assuming that they've left their progressive liberation theology at the border as they enter the land of opportunity.
Admittedly, activist protest was subdued in most cities on the papal itinerary, but it was there. In columbia, feminists tacked a series of Women's Theses (modeled on Martin Luther's 95 Theses) to the doors of Catholic churches throughout the archdiocese. In New Orleans, 200 protesters staged an alternative service to the papal Mass. In Los Angeles, about the same number gathered at City Hall on the night of the Pope's arrival for a rally and vigil. And in San Francisco, the Pope was met with widespread demonstrations against his condemnation of practicing homosexuals and the church's weak and belated response to the AIDS crisis.
Several weeks after the Pope's departure, eight U.S. bishops joined some 200 of their colleagues from around the world in Rome for a synod devoted to the role of the laity in the church. Two of the American representatives, Archbishops Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and John May of St. Louis, came armed with a number of proposals for expanding the role of women in the church, including a suggestion for accepting women as permanent deacons. Although midway through the synod May declared that there was "strong consensus" among the bishops that the non-ordained ministries should be opened to women, the proposal only made it into the first draft of the document that resulted from the synod. All that remained of the Americans' proposals in the final version was a blanket condemnation of discrimination against women, and a suggestion for less gender-specific liturgical language.
As May and Weakland returned home to the United States virtually empty-handed, other bishops were are work on a pastoral letter on the role of women in the church, a document due for release sometime this year. The committee drafting the letter includes no women, a sore point with feminists, but typical of the way in which the prelates work.
About the same time the bishops were meeting in Rome, a crowd of 3,000 gathered in Cincinnati for the largest Women-Church Convergence gathering ever. C.F.F.C. director Frances Kissling explained to me the "two complementary strategies" employed by women-church in its struggle for a transformed church.
"One is the strategy of confrontation and challenge--you know, directing one's attention to the hierarchy," Kissling said, "But the other, in [holding] a meeting like this, is ignoring the hierarchy. The name of the conference, Women-Church: Claiming Our Power, is just women taking their power and going with it--not worrying what the bishops have to say, not worrying about what the Pope thinks--in essence, taking their own vision of church and making it a reality."