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Flip side of Rebellion : Teen-agers are supposed to question authority, right? So why were mobs of them hanging out with the Pope in Denver?


It was dubbed Pope Mania, a Catholic Woodstock or Vatican City 90210.

This month's meeting of teens and pontiff in Denver's mile-high altitude was equal parts media madhouse, spiritual odyssey and weekend party. It was also, according to some observers, a bizarre chapter in the venerable tradition of teen-age rebellion.

"This, too, is the gathering of a counterculture," wrote Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, about World Youth Day in a recent commentary. "And many of these teen-agers will return from the Rockies with plans as subversive as those (of) their parents' generation."

Except this time, the social pendulum swings in another direction. And John Paul II could become to the modern rebels what John Paul George Ringo was to the old.

By car, van and bus they came--searching for answers, praying for inspiration and struggling to hang onto their Catholic identity. "It's really hard," says Toby Pesce, 16, "when your best friends think what you believe in is silly."

But Pesce's questions and sense of isolation vanished when he hiked to the sprawling outdoor Mass at Cherry Creek State Park. "I had heard the numbers (of how many people would be there), but it was unbelievable to actually see them. I remember . . . looking around and feeling like I was in one of the books of the New Testament, where Jesus was present and all his followers were with him."

Even those expecting nothing more than a good time left, in some cases, profoundly moved. Dario Velazquez, 14, of Watts, says he went mostly to get away from home for the first time and meet new people. He did, but it changed him: "I never knew I was going to (run into) these kinds of people. I met a friend and he made me . . . look at the bright side of everything around us. I act different now at home and with my friends."

Others began to re-examine their views on issues like abortion and euthanasia. "I'm still not 100% sure I'm pro-life," says Ann Maulhardt, 20, a math major at the University of San Diego. "But it got me thinking."

For many, it was an otherworldly experience. And the catalyst was the Pope. Says Pesce, a Trabuco Canyon resident, "I could feel the power of his words."

Another possible factor, says L.A. psychiatrist Mark Goulston, is a phenomenon called "group euphoria," in which making a pilgrimage away from one's normal surroundings creates "a feeling of bonding" among those who take part.

It doesn't affect everyone, however, and some probably left the event unchanged or perhaps even cynical about the Pope and Catholicism, Goulston says.

"The ones I talked to who had negative thoughts (coming in) didn't change their minds," confirms Porsche Broudreaux, 15, of Kennedy High School in La Palma.

In general, the trip seemed to reinforce each pilgrim's pre-existing views.

"The Catholic church has moral standards and stuff--on things like abortion and premarital sex--and I try to follow that," says Tom Benson, 17, a student at St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs. "So when I go out and see 500,000 people trying to live the same life I am . . . it helps me continue to do the right thing. It makes me feel like I'm not alone."

"Popestock" baffles some adults, however, especially those schooled in the rebelliousness of the 1960s. High school and college-age kids are supposed to be questioning authority and rejecting religion, they say, so what are tens of thousands of young people doing hanging out with a Pope?

Believe it or not, says Lawler, they're doing the same thing their parents did a generation ago: They're looking for answers besides the ones they're getting in schools, the media and society at large: "The baby-boom generation rebelled against the church big-time. Their children are now seeking a set of answers that their parents rejected, but that they haven't had a chance to reject."

Goulston agrees: "Their way of rebelling is to go straight. It's like that television show 'Family Ties,' " in which liberal parents who came of age during the Flower-Power era find themselves raising an arch-capitalist Republican son.

But, he says, the stereotypical image of rebellious youth is wrong: "Kids only have problems with authority if it's authoritarian . They don't have problems if it's authoritative ."

The Pope falls into the second category, he says: "Whereas authoritarian figures are concerned with always being right, authoritative figures are concerned with knowing what is right. . . . I think the Pope's personality is one of someone who sincerely cares about suffering and anguish in the world and (someone who) is not on an ego trip. There's an appeal about that to teens. . . . In fact, they're starving for those kinds of people."

But will it all last?

As Baltimore Sun religion writer Frank P.L. Somerville observed this week, "The decision of Pope John Paul II to go to Colorado was a big gamble for the Roman Catholic church. So much could go wrong--and did."

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