Pope John Paul II, who came to the United Nations at the height of the Cold War 16 years ago pleading for the rights of individuals trapped in communist Europe, returned Thursday with a new plea for the rights of ethnic groups scarred by massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda.
In a lengthy address expounding complex political and spiritual issues, the Pope called on the nations of the world to understand and even promote "the powerful re-emergence of a certain ethnic and cultural consciousness" and "an explosive need for identity and survival" in the post-Cold War world.
He warned, however, that this ethnic consciousness must not be allowed to turn to excess and become an extreme nationalism with "aberrations of totalitarianism."
John Paul said the terrible political, economic and social problems of the 20th Century--"a century of sorrows," as he called it--could be addressed successfully in the 21st Century, not in isolation but within the framework of a guiding moral principle.
He exhorted the United Nations to play that role by rising above "the cold status of an administrative institution" to become a "moral center" where countries, like family members, feel at home and develop a shared awareness of love and responsibility for each other.
Only then, he said, can the community of nations and individuals overcome a palpable fear for the future.
U.N. diplomats had expected the Pope's speech to be his most important discourse on world affairs during a five-day visit to the United States. They were not disappointed.
Speaking alternately in English, French, Spanish and Russian, John Paul discussed human rights, ethnic rights, the need for diversity, the exploitation of the developing world, the worth of the United Nations and the fears of the world as it enters a new millennium.
Sounding one of his favorite themes--the rich nations' exploitation of the developing world--the Pope denounced utilitarianism, which he described as "the doctrine which defines morality not in terms of what is good but of what is advantageous." Economic utilitarianism, he said, "drives more powerful countries to manipulate and exploit weaker ones."
Noting that some countries cannot even satisfy the essential needs of their own people, the Pope said: "Such situations offend the conscience of humanity and pose a formidable moral challenge to the human family."
John Paul II reminded the diplomats that he had stood before them in October, 1979, after his first year as leader of the church, and cried out against the suppression of human rights in many countries, including his native Poland.
"The nonviolent revolutions of 1989" in Eastern Europe, he said, "demonstrated that the quest for freedom cannot be suppressed."
Now, the Pope said, it was time to extend the recognition of human rights to "the rights of peoples and nations." Ethnic nationalism "must not be underestimated or regarded as a simple leftover of the past," he said.
"Unhappily," he said, "the world has yet to learn how to live with diversity, as recent events in the Balkans and Central Africa have painfully reminded us.
"Amplified by historic grievances and exacerbated by the manipulations of the unscrupulous, the fear of 'difference' can lead to a denial of the very humanity of 'the other,' with the result that people fall into a cycle of violence in which no one is spared, not even the children."
The Pope slipped easily from thoughtful analyses of politics to emotional calls for spiritual values that could be galvanized to deal with worldly issues.
"Hope and trust: these may seem matters beyond the purview of the United Nations," he said at one point. "But they are not. The politics of nations . . . can never ignore the transcendent, spiritual dimension of the human experience, and could never ignore it without harming the cause of man and the cause of freedom."
Despite the serious message of his address, the Pope's four-hour stay at the United Nations was hardly somber. U.N. diplomats and staff are accustomed to presidents, prime ministers and kings, not popes. In its 50 years, the United Nations has been visited by only one other Pope, Paul VI, in 1965.
As the Pope entered the General Assembly chambers from the rear in his signature white vestments, seasoned diplomats--some in national costume--craned their necks to get a glimpse. Others jumped into his path to snap his picture.
The Pope listened to the singing of fifth-graders from the U.N. International School, addressed the U.N. staff and prayed with Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, next to the stained-glass windows by painter Marc Chagall in the U.N. chapel.
Boutros-Ghali chatted with the Pope in French. When the secretary general led the visitor to his office on the 38th floor, John Paul II said: "I remember this office. I was here when [Kurt] Waldheim was secretary general."
Boutros-Ghali agreed that it had not changed much since then.
Talking with the children, the Pope started to quote St. Augustine. "Do you know him?" he asked and then replied to his own question: "Not so much."
"St. Augustine," he went on, "was a great man, a great philosopher, who said singing is twice praying. You prayed three times, because you are singing and because you are children, for children have a special place in the heart of the Father."