100,000 at Coliseum Mass Brave Long Wait to Hear Pope

Times Staff Writers

Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass Tuesday with more than 100,000 worshipers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, transforming a spirited celebration of pageantry and festive song into a holy service of spiritual reflection and solemn prayer.

As dusk fell and the orange flame of the Olympic torch glowed above the peristyle, the nearly filled arena took on the stately, restrained atmosphere of a cathedral, and the celebrity Pope the crowd had come to see became priest.

Before to the Mass, security checks forced thousands to stand for hours in lines that coiled for blocks. The checks, which included bag searches and use of metal detectors, were eased shortly before the Mass began so that those still waiting could get in on time.


The wait stirred anger and irritation in the lines. Thousands missed much of a pre-Mass celebration, and more than two dozen Mass-goers were treated for heat exhaustion and what one medical worker called “crowd fatigue syndrome.”

Shortly before the Pope entered at 6:15 p.m., the choir members who had performed in the earlier celebration returned to their seats, the crowd stood and an expectant hush fell over the stadium. The Pope entered under a canopy, circling the field track in his Popemobile.

As he emerged from the vehicle, the Coliseum erupted in joyous applause and people waved handkerchiefs and flags. Wearing his miter and carrying a silver staff, the Pope raised his hand again and again to acknowledge the crowd as he slowly walked to the front of the altar.

In his first sermon in California, John Paul exhorted Catholics to learn obedience and compassion through enduring suffering. He praised California for its leadership in research and technology and the promise of hope that the state holds for millions. But he said the “major role” California plays in shaping American culture carries responsibility and warned that material wealth will not bring happiness.

“No amount of economic, scientific or social progress can eradicate our vulnerability to sin and death,” the pontiff said, reading his sermon in a strong, steady voice. “On the contrary, progress creates new possibilities for evil as well as for good. Technology, for example, increases what we can do, but it can not teach us the right thing to do.”

He called for greater compassion in a “world in which the human suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters is needlessly increased by oppression, deprivation and underdevelopment--by poverty, hunger and disease.”


Compassion, he said, is needed to overcome “the spiritual emptiness and aimlessness that people can often experience amid material prosperity and comfort in developed countries such as your own.”

As the pontiff read his homily, uniformed police, standing 20 feet apart, ringed the field. The snack stands were closed and there was little movement throughout the crowd. The worshipers did not interrupt his 20-minute sermon with applause, and there was only restrained clapping when he finished.

Later, as the Pope consecrated the bread and wine for communion, the arena lit up with pinpoints of light as thousands who had brought their cameras snapped the dramatic moment.

During a stirring gospel song, more than 700 priests and deacons distributed the communion from prearranged stations around the Coliseum. The Pope himself distributed communion to 100 pre-selected worshipers, chosen to represent the different ages, vocations and ethnic groups within Southern California.

The serving of the communion, which was to be completed in 18 minutes, took longer than expected. The Pope distributed his communion in 20 minutes, but the other servers still had not finished several minutes later. Finally, the communion was stopped, and several hundreds went without.

Because of the long lines, the Coliseum was at least a third empty when the pre-Mass celebration began at 5 p.m., 30 minutes later than scheduled. First-aid workers treated dozens of people for mostly minor ailments. Medical coordinator Dean Grose said many people passed out after being jammed together near the gates.


One man complained that he had moved only 50 yards in an hour and a half. He still had 30 yards to go in the late afternoon in a line that stretched for 150 yards behind him.

Nearly two hours before the Mass was to start, Ernie Silva, a ticket taker, told a police sergeant that he was worried about people losing their tempers because of the long wait.

“People have been yelling at me,” he lamented. “We’re close to having fights breaking out between people.”

Most people, however, remained calm and orderly.

A Hacienda Heights man complained he had circled the Coliseum for more than an hour just to find a parking place, and the wait in line irritated him more.

“I’m not mad at the Catholic Church, I’m not mad at the Pope, I’m mad at this darn line,” he said. “This is terrible planning.”

He refused to give his name because “I don’t want people from church to think I was this mad before going to Mass.”


‘Acting Strangely’

Police said they detained two people who were “acting strangely” as they awaited the Mass within the Coliseum. Lt. Dan Cooke, an LAPD spokesman, said the two were taken to County-USC medical Center for observation. Neither was endangering anybody, but both appeared mentally disturbed, he said.

After the Mass, 51 people were treated by city Fire Department paramedics in parking lots outside the Coliseum for apparent carbon monoxide inhalation. Six were taken to two nearby hospitals, city Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells said.

The patients were apparently overcome or suffered nausea as a result of fumes from chartered buses idling their motors in the parking lots as they awaited latecomers, Wells said. Two companies of firefighters went from bus to bus after the incident asking bus drivers to shut down their engines until they were ready to leave.

Five Fire Department ambulances were ordered to the scene and a helicopter ambulance hovered overhead in case of any extreme emergencies, but it was not needed. A fire official at the scene at 39th Street and Menlo Avenue near the west end Coliseum parking lots radioed, “There is such a gridlock in the parking lot that people are dropping all over the place.”

Cheers From Faithful

Despite the long lines before the Mass, celebrants said they were glad they had come. When the Mass ended, the Pope descended from the altar, individually greeted and blessed a group of about a dozen handicapped people, many in wheelchairs, and got into his Popemobile. As it slowly circled the track, the faithful roared their approval.

“Oh, I didn’t want him to leave,” said Gloria Redd, who was there from St. John’s parish in South-Central Los Angeles. “Isn’t he something? He’d make the devil be good.”