Pope John Paul II, in a youth rally called "Papal Space Bridge '87," took center stage at the Universal Amphitheater Tuesday before a crowd of 6,000 screaming, cheering young Catholic fans and linked by satellite to similar gatherings in three other states.
The event had the trappings of a major television production with the Pope stepping out from behind a black curtain as a band played an upbeat version of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and the crowd clapped, whistled and hollered approval.
"We love you, John Paul II!" the audience chanted as the pontiff, who seemed somewhat surprised at the exuberance of those in the seats, touched the hands and patted the heads of of those nearest the stage while saying "good young people, good young people . . . thank you very much."
Still, the rally had some serious messages. The Pope used the occasion to stress that hope and faith in God can give purpose to life. "Why does it sometimes happen that a seemingly healthy person, successful in the eyes of the world, takes an overdose of sleeping pills and commits suicide.
"Why, on the other hand, do we see a seriously disabled person filled with great zest for life . . . The one has lost all hope; in the other, hope is alive and overflowing . . . Hope comes from someone else, someone beyond ourselves."
The enthusiastic crowd launched into an opening prayer even before the Pope, who was supposed to lead them, could say "Our Father."
A two-way television satellite hookup linked those assembled at the amphitheater with 6,000 more youths gathered in Portland, Ore., in Denver, and in St. Louis.
The Pope first prayed with the youths, ages 15 to 25, addressed them, listened to their questions and responded. The pontiff knew in advance the questions that would be asked by the youths, but his answers were not scripted.
In his message, the Pope urged young people to keep hope and to consider vocations to a religious life as priests, nuns and brothers.
Although the church has grown by 5 million new members since he last visited in 1979, 40% of young Catholics stop going to Mass and drift away from Church life between the ages of 15 and 29. Meanwhile, Catholic schools are declining in enrollments and financial support.
"In the past, the Church in the United States has been rich in vocations to the priesthood and religious life," said the pontiff. "And it could be especially true today."
Joy of Celebrating Mass
Using his own life as an example, he added: "Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God's people in the church. That has been true ever since the day of my ordination as a priest. Nothing has changed it, not even becoming Pope."
One youth asked, "What motivated you to come to the United States this time?"
"Perhaps that means I should not have come to the United States?" joked the pontiff.
"Noooooo!" shouted those in the audience.
From Denver, a couple asked what are the potential vocations for the young and newly married.
"I should say that the first ministry you have is to be faithful to the Holy Spirit," answered the Pope. "My best wishes to your young family."
Groups from each city offered gifts to the pontiff.
From Portland he received a "gift of service" in which students donated a day of their time to comfort the homeless. From Denver he received a song dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Those in St. Louis said they would give alms to the "sick, shunned and imprisoned."
"This proves the traditional generosity of the people of the United States is carried on by the young generation," said the Pope.
The gift from Los Angeles was especially emotional. Tony Melendez of Chino, who has no arms, sat on a chair and played a Christian song on 12-string guitar with his feet. The words of the song included, "Today is like no other day before . . . you and I will never be the same."
When the song was over, the Pope strode forward, stepped off the stage and up to the grateful young bearded man whose eyes grew misty when he and the Pope kissed.
"You are a truly courageous young man," said the Pope. "You are giving hope to all of us."
After the event, Melendez said, "I really feel honored right now . . . and I'm so excited I haven't slept in three days."