John Paul II in America: An Older, Slower Pope
NEW YORK (AP) _ Sixteen years ago he hoisted children above him like dolls and pumped hands like a candidate. Eight years ago he rushed around the country on a tour that seemed like a prescription for jet lag.
But on Wednesday, Pope John Paul II descended from his plane one slow step at a time, his left hand gripping the rail as if any misstep could be his last.
The 75-year-old popular pontiff returned to the New York area older and more frail, challenging the world’s most powerful countries to ``clothe yourselves with humility.″ He was to address the U.N. General Assembly today on the first full day of his five-day trip to New Jersey, New York and Maryland.
The New York area was a memorable stop on his first papal trip to America in 1979, just a year after his elevation to the papacy. He was only 59 then, and Americans were intrigued by this mountain-climbing, downhill-skiing pope _ ``John Paul Superstar,″ as Time magazine’s cover described him.
But last year the pope had to cancel his visit to the United States because of a broken leg. He recovered slowly from hip replacement surgery, and until recently walked with a cane. There has been much speculation in Rome about the name of his successor.
He jokingly alluded to such rumors on the flight Wednesday to Newark International Airport. ``You can see I feel well,″ he told reporters. ``The pope is still alive.″
But this was a more tentative pontiff than many Americans remembered. Although Catholic school children on the tarmac shrieked with glee when he emerged from the door of his plane, many lost interest as he read his speech from a piece of paper in plodding, heavily accented English.
``He looks tired,″ said Barbara Bell, one of about 1,500 people who gathered outside Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark, N.J., later in the afternoon to see the pope ride by in his bulletproof popemobile.
Frank Loperena of Moca, Puerto Rico, is blind but was satisfied just to be near the pope. Speaking through his son Michael’s translation, Loperena said he extended his New Jersey visit for Pope John Paul and feels like he can see him.
Inside the cathedral, the 1,800 invited guests included about 200 cloistered nuns. Some of the nuns left their convent grounds for the first time since taking their vows as long as 50 years ago. Among the other guests were President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bob Hope, other dignitaries and members of the congregation.
Dressed in a white clerical robe with a simple gold cross around his neck, the pope challenged countries in the United Nations to ``clothe yourselves with humility. In particular, the powerful and the mighty ought to show meekness in their dealings with the weak.″
Pope John Paul comes to the United States at a peak of personal popularity, with a best-selling book, ``Crossing the Threshold of Hope,″ and polls showing that he is admired by large majorities of U.S. Catholics. Historians are crediting him with a major role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
At the airport, Clinton took note of that role, praising the pontiff for being an ambassador of peace in places from Northern Ireland to South Africa.
At the airport and the cathedral, Pope John Paul reminded his audiences of the central reason for his visit: the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Upon arrival he described himself as a ``pilgrim for peace,″ and echoed Pope Paul VI’s 1965 appeal to the United Nations: ``No more war, war never again.″
The pope said the ideals behind the founding of the United Nations are still needed in a world where ``ancient rivalries and suspicions still compromise the cause of peace.″
``We must find ways to set them aside. If we do not, history and the Lord of history will judge us harshly,″ he said.
After the service, the pontiff returned for the night to the Manhattan residence of the papal envoy to the United Nations.
Pope John Paul also will make pastoral visits in each of the three states, presiding over huge public Masses at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Central Park in Manhattan and Aqueduct Race Track in the borough of Queens, and Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore. On a more personal level, he will meet with seminarians in Yonkers, N.Y., and visit the homeless at a soup kitchen in Baltimore.