When last seen close up, Pope John Paul II was standing in the garden of the apostolic delegate to Washington before a battery of microphones that would not work and once again was running far behind schedule. He was in a playful mood, thumping the mikes and shaking his head wryly, and ad libbing while he said farewell to the journalists who had followed him and, through them, to the nation.
When he finished his prepared remarks, he said goodbye in several languages, with a "Cheers!" in English, and then someone shouted, "Come back to America, John Paul." The pope smiled, and said:
"You Americans have supported me very well"
That is perhaps the one thing about his extraordinary trip to the United States that everyone can agree upon.
In a week virtually without precedent, the Roman Catholic pope delivered about 50 separate textual messages in a procession witnessed in person by millions and untold millions more on television; stirred old controversies and addressed new ones; proved to be both radical and conservative in approach; generated intense emotion and interest everywhere; put religion back on newspaper front pages day after day and on television hour after hour, drew probably the largest single crowds in American history; touched in rare fashion Americans of many faiths and creeds and doubtless those with none, and leaves behind a number of almost unanswerable questions.
For all the "good news" that his visit created -- the patient crowds, the good will, the expressions of hope in a cynical age -- in the end it is easier to list the negatives than to assess the positive things achieved.
The arms race continues, the nuclear stockpiles increase, the violence in places such as Ireland remains, the disparities between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless about which he repeatedly spoke are unchanged.And it is easier, too, to raise the questions, almost endless in nature and complexity, about the meaning and impact of his trip.
Will the emotional experiences felt by so many lead to a new sense of religious revival? Will they accelerate the ecumenical movement and bring together in common purpose many religions? Will they bring about a reexamination of moral and ethical values? Will they alter the materialism, the commercialism, the selfishness that formed a central part of the pope's message? Will they help reduce racial tensions or redress the economic imbalances in present society?
These are general questions. Others more specifically concern American Catholics. Will the pope's traditional theological views, as expressed every day, in one forum after another, be accepted by Catholics who hold contrary opinions.Will Catholic women cease using contraceptive devices? Will priests stop leaving the priesthood? Will Catholic nuns refrain from wanting a greater voice in church decisions?
Above all, there are two major imponderables about a journey that made history and will be debated and discussed for long to come. Were people being stirred by this man or his message? And were the vast throngs portrayed from dawn to dusk, from East Coast to Midwest and back, representative of the American people as a whole or only the visible true believers?
More Americans chose not to watch the pope on their screens at home than those who did. "Pope Strikes Out" was the headline in a Philadelphia paper the morning after his emotional appearance there.
The paper was reporting the results of the television ratings showing that more Americans watched the baseball playoff game than the pope and more tuned in the evening television comedies and dramas than the papal religious celebrations.
And more Americans chose to stay away from the ceremonies than to attend them.
Yet however valid these and other questions, none of them explains the hold that John Paul II exerted so powerfully on an America supposedly lost in secularism, selfishness and pessimism.
It was precisely these attitudes that the pope addressed most forcefully. The content of his message, whether delivered in the driving rains of Boston and New York, the winds of Philadelphia, the sunshine of Iowa, or the chill of Chicago and Washington, always was the same.
He brought a challenge that obviously touched something deep. When he talked about materialism and economic injustice and redistribution of wealth, he could have been expressing the views of a socialist.And yet when he addressed religious questions, he strongly issued a call to hold fast to the traditional faith.
The two themes were not as diverse as they seemed, for throughout his journey John Paul linked them. In a typical comment, he said at Catholic University yesterday:
"Materialistic concerns and one-sided values are never sufficient to fill the heart and mind of a human person. A life reduced to the sole dimension of possessions, of consumer goods, of temporal concerns, will never let you discover and enjoy the full richness of your humanity."
In those words he expressed the heart of his humanistic message, one that could be applauded by citizens who never go to church or who would disagree uith the pope's religious convictions. It is also a message that has figured prominently in the themes of American writers and artists, in the words of our songs and our plays, and in the promises of our politicians to bring a "better" life.
The pope's solution is to follow God through Jesus, but he leaves room to find that more rewarding life through changing society at large.
He brought something very old and very new. With him he carried an ancient belief -- that human beings can affect their destinies by adhering to a higher moral and ethical purpose -- and he expressed that idea with a freshness and eloquence Americans have not heard in years.
When he left a cathedral the other night after listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the crowd waiting outside began cheering. They should have been cheering the musicians, he indicated, saying: "I assure you I am not the Chicago Symphony Orchestera. I am only the pope."
To what extent Americans were saluting this pope's music and message during this last emotionally-draining week remains unanswerable, but there is no question about their response to the man.