Faithful debate legacy of John Paul II in America

Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd of several thousand young people in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1987. He visited the United States seven times.

RALEIGH, N.C. --- When Pope John Paul II moves one step away from sainthood on Sunday, the event will be celebrated in cathedrals, high schools and homes by American Roman Catholics who revere the Polish pontiff like none before him.


Other U.S. Catholics see the occasion as a reminder that the charismatic, globe-trotting pope was a better leader for the world at large than for his own flock.

John Paul II has only been dead for six years, but his 27-year tenure as leader of the church is already being harkened to by believers as a golden age, when Catholicism faced down Soviet Communism and won admirers from all faiths. They see the scheduled beatification in Rome as the obvious way to recognize the man referred to by many as John Paul the Great.

"It's a huge deal, especially here in the U.S., in this secularized culture that we're moving towards, what he called the culture of death," said Justin Braga, 28, of Waltham, Mass. "He was standing up against that."

The focus on the first pope to truly harness the global media is a welcome break for many Catholics weary of fights over doctrine and politics, and the still-raw anger generated by the sexual abuse scandals. For some Catholics, John Paul II's papacy is inseparable from those troubles.

"There are lots of people saying he was a great pope for the world, but not nearly as great a pope for the church," said Thomas Groome, the chairman of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College.

Beatification is the next-to-last step before a Catholic is formally declared a saint. John Paul II was an enthusiastic promoter of sainthood. He named more saints than all the popes in the previous 400 years combined. Saints play an important role in the lives of Catholics, who believe they serve not just as models of holiness but as advocates for the faithful.

JOHN PAUL'S enduring popularity can be partially gauged in the enthusiasm greeting his beatification. Masses are being offered in dioceses across the country, and Catholic bookstores are putting out special displays.

At least 30 schools around the U.S. are named for John Paul II, with several of them holding special Masses, art shows or other programs to coincide with the event in Rome.

The bond between a Polish pope focused on the problems of Eastern Europe under Communist domination and the American public isn't necessarily a natural one. John Paul II worked to develop that kinship by frequent travel and by turning his attention to young people.

"So many people have more firsthand experience with him than they did with any other pope," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He got to the heartland as well as the great metropolises."

The pope visited the U.S. seven times between 1979 and 1999, including stops in Denver, Des Moines and Columbia, along with the more familiar Catholic strongholds.

But the last years of his papacy coincided with the sexual abuse crisis that engulfed first the U.S. church, and then Catholics around the world. For some, John Paul II's legacy includes a failure to deal with not only allegations of abuse by priests, but also with bishops who simply transferred clergymen to new assignments.

For millions of Americans, though, his name still conjures images of vast crowds gathered in stadiums for Mass, the fall of the Berlin Wall and a defense of traditional church teaching.