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Friday, January 22, 1999 Published at 18:06 GMT

World: Americas

The Pope goes west

An earlier and perhaps more relaxed meeting

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

After a two-day visit to Mexico, the Pope will arrive in St Louis, Missouri, on 26 January.

This will be the seventh time he has visited the USA as pontiff.

He will find a vibrant life in the parishes, and can expect huge crowds to greet him - some observers think good weather could bring out a million people.

But many Catholics say the US church is also a politically divided church, with little prospect of left and right sinking their differences.

When the late Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin, proposed a dialogue between the two sides to search for some common ground, he was criticised by his fellow cardinals.

However, the editor of the British Catholic weekly, the Tablet, John Wilkins, thinks the Pope has had a good influence.

He says that on previous visits, the Pope has challenged American Catholics to be true to their traditions, especially that of welcoming strangers and immigrants.

"They know a superstar when they see one. He's been a tremendous success, and has begun to heal the divisions within the church," he says.

John Wilkins also recalls the huge crowds of young people who greeted the Pope when he went to Denver in 1995 for World Youth Day.

The unpredictable pontiff

"They even brewed a special beer in his honour. It was called Ale Mary."

And John Wilkins thinks John-Paul, often seen as a right winger himself, cannot be typecast politically.

"He has challenged President Clinton before on the right to life.

"He is the head of a church which has virtually ruled out the death penalty, and he will not mince his words about that.

"He was viscerally opposed to the recent attacks on Iraq, and he wants the sanctions on Iraq and Cuba lifted.

[ image: Not all his hosts share John-Paul's enthusiasm for the UN]
Not all his hosts share John-Paul's enthusiasm for the UN
"He supports the poor, and the idea of a fairer world order - he has even talked about the structures of sin keeping people in poverty.

"You could say the Pope is the last great surviving critic of capitalism," he says.

That view is dismissed by one prominent Catholic layman, George Weigel, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

"The Pope has not been critical of capitalism itself. What he has insisted upon, as any serious Catholic would, is that economics and politics are not a value-free arena," he says.

"They should be shaped by the moral question of how we ought to behave."

Instinctive liberals

Father Richard McBryan, professor of theology at Notre Dame university in Indiana, says American Catholics are not political animals, but pragmatic liberals.

"If you ask them do you think women should be ordained, they say why not ?

[ image: A friend to Castro - and to the US ?]
A friend to Castro - and to the US ?
"If you ask them do you think birth control is always a mortal sin, they reply of course not.

"Should priests be allowed to marry ? Of course, they tell you - we are losing too many good priests already.

"They will say they oppose abortion. But they also oppose the imprisonment of doctors who perform abortions."

And Richard McBryan thinks the Pope is happy to accept American Catholics for what they are.

"I do no think he is coming here to have one last stab at transforming American Catholicism.

"He is too bright to think he can snap his fingers and suddenly turn the Catholic church here into some version of 1970s or 1980s Polish Catholicism. It just isn't going to happen."

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