MIAMI — Pope John Paul II, history's most traveled pontiff, began his 10-day visit to the United States today by telling thousands of airport welcomers "God bless America," assuring them that he had come "as a friend of the poor and the sick and the dying . . . those not yet finding the deep meaning of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' "
Hours earlier, in an interview aboard his Alitalia Boeing 747, the Pope minimized dissent among U.S. Roman Catholics and said there is a "great silent majority" faithful to the church's teaching.
He also defended his audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, which has drawn the ire of Jews; said homosexuals, "like all people who suffer," are "in the heart of the church," and reiterated his view that the church is not a democracy.
In his first public remarks on his meeting with Waldheim, who is accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes, the Pope said he believes that he did not make a mistake.
"It's necessary to show the same appreciation, the same esteem, for every people," he said. Waldheim "came as a president, democratically elected, of a people, of a nation."
Greeted by Reagans
Making his 36th trip outside Italy as Pope, John Paul was greeted by President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, as he stepped from his jet, nicknamed "Shepherd One," at Miami International Airport. More than 4,000 VIPs cheered him and waved yellow-and-white Vatican flags.
"God bless America," the 67-year-old Pope said in concluding his remarks.
Before the Pope spoke, the President thanked him "for the courage and sanctity, the kindness and wisdom with which you have done so much to help our troubled world."
The Pope, dressed in white vestments, was then driven by limousine to Miami's official welcome at St. Mary's Cathedral, hosted by the city's archbishop, Edward A. McCarthy, and watched by 4,500 public officials, businessmen and Miami-area Catholics. Outside, hundreds of Haitian refugees who had walked from their nearby neighborhood, known as Little Haiti, waved Haitian flags.
After a service at St. Mary's, the Pope was scheduled to travel to St. Martha's Church for the first of this tour's important ecclesiastical meetings, a session with 750 U.S. priests.
His first major public appearance was to be a three-mile motorcade along Biscayne Boulevard through downtown Miami this evening, following the route of the annual Orange Bowl parade.
The Pope's visit, focusing primarily on cities in the South and West, including two days of appearances in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Wednesday, is his second trip through the United States. Its missions include applauding the vibrancy of the Roman Catholic Church in America and defending parts of church doctrine that have failed to gain acceptance from a substantial percentage of the nation's 53 million Catholics.
John Paul made no direct reference to these goals in his airport remarks, saying merely that as pastor of the Catholic Church he hoped to "enter into ever deeper communion" with fellow Catholics "in our common service to the Lord."
Law enforcement and emergency services agencies here went on the highest level of alert, a status usually reserved for hurricanes and riots. Highway authorities closed Interstate 95, a major north-south route in South Florida, for several hours after the Pope's landing. National Guard troops took up positions along Biscayne Boulevard hours before the motorcade was to begin.
Two hours before the Pope landed, a construction worker with a handgun was taken into custody at a park near where the Pope will celebrate Mass on Friday.