In ending his fourth pilgrimage to the United States as he began it, with an appeal to Americans to live up to their most luminescent ideals, Pope John Paul II deliberately cut against the grain of political trends.
Although Vatican officials and leading U.S. bishops say the Pope's message was carefully grounded in biblical morality and church doctrine, John Paul knew he was not speaking in a vacuum. He carefully follows developments in the United States and receives regular briefings from American bishops.
Thus it is no secret to the Pope that even as he was urging Americans last week to open their hearts to the poor and the downtrodden, the newly Republican Congress is seriously considering legislation--opposed by Catholic bishops in the United States--to reduce government benefits for the poor and the elderly and to tighten U.S. borders to immigrants.
In fact, among the constituencies that have helped elect Congress' Republican majority are members of the same Mass audiences who have cheered and even wept as the Pope urged prosperous Americans to help their less fortunate countrymen. Public opinion polls have also shown over the last several years that many Catholics do not share the Pope's views against artificial birth control and the ordination of women as priests.
Does that suggest that John Paul's latest message will be forgotten soon after he returns to Rome? Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, for one, does not think it's that simple.
Msgr. Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Pope has gained a wide and attentive audience in the United States because of the consistency and clarity of his message.
The American people, he said, "know that what they see is what they get. There seems to be a great desire to see that in our [political] system. He can be at odds with a large number of people on issues. He's here to tell people what they ought to do, not what they want to hear."
The Pope's message is not new. He has repeatedly spoken out, for example, in defense of the poor, the elderly and the homeless as well as against abortion and artificial birth control, as he did again on his latest journey to the United States. But as next year's presidential election draws nearer, it has a new resonance.
While some may find it difficult to pinpoint where the Pope's politics end and his religion begins, the fact is that he intentionally lets them overlap. John Paul does not hesitate to integrate issues of faith into the fabric of daily life.
Contemporary issues may change, he has said, but the underlying moral framework by which Christians must judge individual conduct and public policy remains constant.
"Can the biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate?" John Paul asked on Sunday, the fifth and final day of his visit.
"Would not doing so mean that America's founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy?"
Clearly, the Pope sees a connection between faith and action. He said democracy could not be sustained without a shared commitment to moral truths and a recognition that true freedom consists not in doing what people like, but in having the right to do what they ought.
So it was that the Pope on Sunday told the faithful: "Sometimes, witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions, a fullness that is revealed in Christ. At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault."
How enduring his message will be and how it may shape the actions of the Roman Catholic faithful remains to be seen. Some sociologists and scholars who have studied the trends following great evangelistic episodes say that once the preacher goes home, the fervor dies and people return to their old ways.
But for now, Catholic bishops pronounced the Pope's trip a spiritual success at the very least. Indeed, some take offense when the Pope's visit is asked to meet a test of political effectiveness. After all, they say, he is at heart a spiritual leader.
There was little doubt here as John Paul headed back to Rome that thousands of faithful were deeply moved by his presence and his simple and consistent faith. Many of them said they were left with a profound sense of joy and renewed determination to live out their faith. Repeatedly, John Paul encouraged them not to be afraid, to love one another, to follow what he has called Christ's example of service.
Among them was 15-year-old Lauren Jones of Manassas, Va., who said the Pope had changed her life. "I'm not afraid to express my faith," she said, beaming as she stood on a downtown street here in a throng waiting for the pontiff to drive by in his "Popemobile." "That's really cool."
Other young people with her, who attended the Pope's World Youth Day two years ago in Denver, said they remained as committed now as they were then, attending Mass regularly and finding their faith a vital force in their lives still.
Asked what the longer-term impact of the Pope's visit would be on Catholic voters, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters he did not know.
"But as one who preaches from time to time," Keeler said, "I've always hoped that when a word that is rooted in the [Gospels] is spoken, it makes some impact. . . . I remember someone teaching in the seminary once who said that the word that touches most effectively is like the rain that flows gently, not the downpour that can carry away the topsoil. What I think Pope John Paul is doing is to continue giving us the blessing of that gentle rain."