The official theme of Pope John Paul II's 10-day pastoral visit to the United States was "Unity in the Work of Service." But throughout the journey what the Pope found was abundant evidence of the diversity--even division--in his American flock of 53 million people.
From the very first day--when a priest in Miami urged him to consider the issue of priestly celibacy--to nearly the last--when a lay group leader in San Francisco argued for greater responsibilities for women and non-clergy in church policy-making--John Paul heard respectful, restrained, but unmistakable references to the issues that separate millions of Roman Catholics in this country from the official teaching of their church.
In his replies, this most orthodox Pope gave no comfort to those who would dissent from those teachings. But by his very willingness to listen he built bridges.
Many took heart in his face-to-face dealing with the tough and sensitive issues and they were encouraged and buoyed by his affable and loving charisma--if not his strict words.
"We envisioned candor and a loving expression of the truth . . . I think that came together," Dolores R. Leckey, who directs the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Laity, said after the Pope's meeting in San Francisco on Friday with 3,000 national representatives of Catholic lay groups.
"It was a historic moment. . . . We were there together."
A Protestant theologian, Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University, noted that the Pope's visit underscored the vast differences between the theology of the U.S. Catholic Church and that of the Vatican.
"The Catholic Church in America has been discreet about what it believes on the issues of birth control and so on for a long time," said Cox, a liberal Baptist. "Now, I'm afraid the Pope's visit has brought it all out very explicitly and it's going to have to be dealt with."
But that may have been exactly what the Pope wanted.
"It has never been easy to accept the Gospel teaching in its entirety, and it never will be," he said in a key admonition to American bishops in Los Angeles.
The pontiff may have had in mind a passage in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which says that many of Jesus' disciples "turned back and no longer followed him" because of the difficult demands of his teachings.
It seems unlikely, however that the Pope's pleas actually will lead to greater adherence to church discipline in matters like birth control, divorce and dissent, according to a number of scholars.
Patrick Hughes, director of pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and a professional lay minister in the church for 25 years, acknowledged as much when he was asked about the Pope's unyielding stance that divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the church must not take Communion.
"That's an ongoing struggle," Hughes said. "Adults in some parishes make decisions on the basis of their own, sound, informed conscience that may not always be . . . in conformity with the official teaching of the church."
Nonetheless, this visit was the first time in the United States that the Pope allowed a wide range of Catholics--from professional lay workers to a cardinal--to speak their minds so publicly and frankly on such issues.
Although the speeches on both sides had been written and shared with the pontiff well ahead of time, none was censored, according to participants in the dialogues and Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
As an example of the candor the Pope faced, Donna Hanson, a lay leader from Spokane, Wash., stood at the podium in St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and directly challenged the pontiff:
"In my cultural experience, questioning is neither rebellion nor dissent. Rather, it is a desire to participate and is a sign of both love and maturity," she said in restrained but firm tones.
"My culture compels me to continue questioning those in leadership positions. I question them about public policies related to abortion, development of nuclear arms, the exploitation of our environment. Not to question, not to challenge, not to seek understanding is to be less than a mature, educated and committed citizen."
Several of the toughest talks the pontiff heard were during a closed-door session with 320 U.S. bishops in Los Angeles. Texts of the speeches of the four bishops who addressed the Pope and his reply were released to the press.
In the United States, said Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, "The faithful are more inclined to look at the intrinsic worth of an argument proposed by the teachers in the church than to accept it on the basis of the authority itself."
The Pope's response, as it was to all the challenges and requests from nearly 40 people who spoke to him during the dialogue sessions, was frank and loving. But unbending.