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THE PAPAL VISIT : ON THE PAPAL ROUTE : Many Factors Get Blame for Small Crowds

September 13, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

LAREDO, Tex. — There was not much doing in this border town on Saturday. The two bridges that span the green waters of the Rio Grande were all but empty, traversed mainly by pedestrians shuffling across to shop and by occasional carloads of tourists.

The somnolent scene, played out under an oppressive sun, was noteworthy in that Saturday was supposed to have brought tens of thousands of Mexicans surging across the bridges on their way to San Antonio and a Mass to be celebrated outdoors today by Pope John Paul II.

"We have a party and no one wants to come," said Alfonso R. De Leon, Jr., the Immigration and Naturalization Service port director here. Less than one-tenth of the 150,000 San Antonio-bound Mexicans the INS was prepared to process had materialized by evening.

The relative trickle of border-crossing pilgrims was just one more surprise for a papal tour that has been marked by unexpectedly low turnouts. John Paul's 10-day swing across America is only one-third finished; nonetheless, people so far have not flocked to see the pontiff in numbers anywhere near those projected by some tour planners and law enforcement officials.

The one explanation voiced most frequently blames overblown predictions of enormous crowds and calamitous traffic tie-ups. The dire forecasts, this theory holds, have frightened off would-be spectators, re-creating a phenomenon experienced in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games.

Also cited is the hot, sticky weather that has dogged the Pope since his arrival Thursday in Florida. The sultry heat seemingly has been interrupted only by untimely outbursts of rain and lightning. A thunderstorm chased away the biggest crowd yet assembled for the Pope, an estimated 230,000 people gathered for an outdoor Mass in Miami, and threatening skies Saturday in New Orleans were said to have contributed to less-than-expected crowds along the papal procession route.

Television could be another factor. Saturation coverage has been offered in every city, allowing people concerned about traffic and jostling crowds to take the easy way out and watch the Pope from their living rooms.

There also have been a few suggestions that the Pope may have lost a bit of his pizazz as a public draw. Nine years ago, when he toured triumphantly through New York and other U.S. cities, John Paul was only in the second year of his reign, a resonant and novel voice of leadership in the world. By now this widely traveled pontiff is a far more familiar presence, and the shelf life of celebrity status is notoriously short.

Attraction Wears Off

"It's only natural," Thomas Davis, a Catholic priest, said here Saturday, "that the attraction would start to wear off. After all, he's been on the road for nine years now."

Davis, who himself was skipping the trip to San Antonio so that his junior clergy could go, offered other, more prosaic reasons for the absence of Mexicans headed for what had been billed the largest outdoor Mass of the Pope's tour: hot weather, the prospect of dangerous, dusty conditions at the Mass site and a new law in Texas that requires all drivers to have liability insurance.

The new insurance requirement also was considered the main culprit by immigration officials at the border. While the law itself might not seem extraordinarily onerous, there were a spate of reports in recent weeks that Draconian enforcement measures would be taken, presenting travelers with the dark vision of roadblocks and arbitrary stops by Texas Rangers.

Father Jose Antonio Rodriguez, the priest at Santo Nino, a Catholic church across the border in Nuevo Laredo, said the insurance law was just one more hurdle in a difficult course thrown up for Mexicans who want to travel into the United States, hurdles that convinced the vast majority of his parishioners to pass on an opportunity to see the Pope.

'Too Many Requirements'

"The enthusiasm is there," he said, "but there are too many requirements--visas, passports, green cards, and now, insurance."

The reluctance was in surprising contrast to the dramatic response the Pope drew in 1979 when he went to Mexico, a response typical of that he receives in the Third World.

The people of Rodriguez's parish were part of a migration of perhaps 2 million people to Monterrey, about 150 miles south of here. "They spent the whole night outside in the winter, in the cold, in the rain, without food," the priest recalled. "The old people were the ones who suffered most. But it was important that we were there. This was in Mexico, not in the United States."

Those involved in staging this tour said it was wrong for public officials to continually emphasize their concerns about traffic jams, heat strokes and other potential hazards presumably posed by an outing to watch John Paul roll by in his Popemobile or say Mass on some faraway altar.

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