Enthusiastic Crowd at Youth Rally Gives Pontiff a Welcome Worthy of a Rock Star

Times Staff Writers

Accompanied by the popping of flashbulbs, the screams of teen-age girls and the waving of pompons, Pope John Paul II took center stage at the Universal Amphitheater Tuesday and advised an audience of young people that "you who are young bring hope to the world" and urged them to consider careers in the church.

It was the most enthusiastic welcome he has received on his 10-day American Tour--and he responded with spontaneity, at times clapping his hands and tapping his feet to the music, and joking gently with the crowd of 6,000 Catholic youths linked by satellite to similar gatherings in Portland, Denver and St. Louis. All together, he was speaking to 12,000 youths, most aged 15 to 25.

Major Production

The event, dubbed "Papal Space Bridge '87," had the trappings of a major television production, with the Pope stepping from behind a red curtain as a band played an upbeat version of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and the crowd clapped, whistled and hollered approval.

Just before the pontiff stepped into the spotlight, television director Marty Pasetta, who directed this year's Academy Awards show, warmed up the crowd, yelling, "This is a rock 'n' roll day . . . it's a happening and we want your spirit to fly."

And it did. "We love you, we love you, John Paul II!" the youths chanted as the 67-year-old pontiff, a former actor and playwright, strolled onto the stage. It was a welcome worthy of a rock star.

At first, the Pope seemed surprised at the exuberance, but then beamed in delight and began circulating among the youths, touching their hands and patting their heads, while saying, "good young people, good young people . . . thank you very much."

The enthusiastic crowd launched into an opening prayer even before the Pope, who was supposed to lead them, could say "Our Father."

Still, the rally had some serious and touching moments, with the Pope addressing such issues as teen-age suicide and lack of faith in a materialistic society. He advised them that a belief in God can provide hope and purpose to life.

"Why does it sometimes happen that a seemingly healthy person, successful in the eyes of the world, takes an overdose of sleeping pills and commits suicide? Why, on the other hand, do we see a seriously disabled person filled with great zest for life? . . . The one has lost all hope; in the other, hope is alive and overflowing. . . . Hope comes from someone else, someone beyond ourselves," he said.

Later, his word seemingly came to life in the music of an armless young man, Tony Melendez, 25, of Chino, who played a guitar for the Pope, using his toes.

In his message, the Pope urged young people to keep hope and to consider vocations to a religious life as priests, nuns and brothers.

Although the church has grown by 5 million new members since he last visited in 1979, 40% of young Catholics stop going to Mass and drift away from church life between the ages of 15 and 29. Meanwhile, Catholic schools are declining in enrollments and financial support.

"In the past, the church in the United States has been rich in vocations to the priesthood and religious life," the pontiff said. "And it could be especially true today."

Using his own life as an example, he added: "Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God's people in the church. That has been true ever since the day of my ordination as a priest. Nothing has changed it, not even becoming Pope."

The appearance provided some of the few moments of spontaneity on a day that was for the most part carefully scripted. Young people in all three cities approached microphones to ask the Pope questions. Although John Paul had been advised of the questions in advance, and had presumably considered his answers, he spoke without a script.

Pope Jokes at Question

One youth asked, "What motivated you to come to the United States this time?"

"Perhaps that means I should not have come to the United States?" joked the pontiff.

"Noooooo!" shouted those in the audience.

When asked how he handled his own fears in youth, he responded that "Providence guided me." He explained that God was with him even though his mother died when he was young. During World War II as a man in his 20s, he said he saw the sufferring of his Polish countrymen. "It was terrible, the Holocaust of Jewish people and the different kinds of persecutions in my home country."

From Denver, a recently wed couple asked about potential vocations for the young and newly married.

"I should say that the first ministry you have is to be faithful to the Holy Spirit," answered the Pope. "My best wishes to your young family."

Groups from each city offered gifts to the pontiff.

'Gift of Service'

From Portland he received a "gift of service" in which students donated a day of their time to comfort the homeless. From Denver he received a song dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Those in St. Louis said they would give alms to the "sick, shunned and imprisoned."

"This proves the traditional generosity of the people of the United States is carried on by the young generation," the Pope said.

The gift from Los Angeles was especially emotional. Melendez sat on a chair and played a Christian song on 12-string guitar with his feet. He was born without arms, a result of his mother being prescribed the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy. The words of the song included, "Today is like no other day before . . . you and I will never be the same."

When the song was over, tears streamed down the faces of many of the young men and women in the crowd. The Pope strode forward, hopped off the stage and tenderly embraced and kissed the young man.

"You are a truly courageous young man," the Pope said. "You are giving hope to all of us."

Melendez, with misty eyes, said later, "It was awesome. . . . It was the highlight of my life."

The program ran a few minutes over schedule, and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony had to intervene to urge John Paul to his next appearance.

Papal Humor

The Pope turned to Mahony and joked about having to answer to his superior.

As the pontiff left the amphitheater with the entourage of Secret Service agents and church officials, he turned, smiled and told the adoring fans, "You are very good young people . . . but you should be still better."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World