With a string of diplomatic initiatives behind him and the U.S. presidential election looming, Pope John Paul II will be standing squarely in the intersection of politics and religion when he visits the United States this week.
Never far from controversy and often in its vortex, history’s most traveled pope is scheduled to arrive in Newark, N.J., Wednesday for a five-day trip that will take him to the United Nations and to pastoral visits with Catholics in New York, Newark, N.J., and Baltimore.
On his fourth visit to the United States and second to the United Nations, he is expected again to raise issues of overarching importance to him - the sanctity of life, the dignity of humans, the importance of families, the imperatives of peace and the dangers of a “culture of death” whose manifestations are abortion, euthanasia and contraception.
While the message is as old as the church itself and certainly a hallmark of John Paul’s 17-year pontificate, the pope’s words are expected to take on added interest and currency.
Church commentators and Vatican watchers expect members of the religious right as well as conservative Republicans - and Democrats determined not to cede moral high ground to opponents - to try to align themselves with papal pronouncements, at least those that fit the growing rhetoric over “traditional values.”
President Clinton plans to greet the pontiff when his airliner, Shepherd I, arrives at Newark International Airport. Vice President Al Gore will bid an official farewell on Oct. 8. Members of the Republican-controlled Congress even made inquiries about a papal address to a joint session of Congress, only to discover that, as a matter of policy, the pope does not address national legislatures.
Informed papal observers expect John Paul to follow up on recent Vatican initiatives at U.N. conferences in Cairo, Egypt, and Beijing by hammering home his views on such issues as the role of women and the need for social and economic justice for the poor.
“He’s an international moral super-power. This is a bully pulpit to speak from,” said Father Thomas J. Reese, a respected Vatican watcher at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. The pope’s arrival will fall 30 years to the day after Paul VI became the first pontiff to address the United Nations.
Originally scheduled to address the United Nations last October, John Paul postponed that trip on doctor’s orders to give his broken right leg more time to heal. With trips to the Philippines and Africa under his belt since then, the 75-year-old pope appears to have recovered nicely.
On his 68th trip abroad, John Paul will celebrate Mass at New York’s Central Park, Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y., and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. He also will recite the rosary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and meet informally with Jewish and Protestant leaders in New York. In Baltimore, John Paul will address seminarians and talk with the leadership of Catholic Relief Services, a humanitarian agency.
If the pope is physically stronger than a year ago, so is his diplomatic hand, according to observers.
The Vatican, after nearly isolating itself last year at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo by categorically opposing abortion and contraception, took a decidedly more moderate tack at the recently concluded U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.
Moreover, the approach of next year’s U.S. elections and the fact that, for the first time, a majority of Catholics last year voted Republican, have prodded the Clinton administration to be more attentive to the Vatican’s concerns.