By JEFF DURBIN, KEISHA PATRICK and RACHEL YOUNG, Missourian staff writers
January 27, 1999

ST. LOUIS - More than 20,000 young people stayed up half the night to see him. They waded through crowds to reach the arena, where they sang, shouted and danced in anticipation.

"You wonder how one man can galvanize so much respect and adoration," said 21-year-old MU student Heather Kinney. "He reaches out to younger people and includes them."

The 78-year-old object of all this admiration touched down Tuesday afternoon at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis.

After greeting President Clinton, church dignitaries and politicians, Pope John Paul II and his motorcade set out for the Archbishop's residence near Forest Park. He rested there briefly before his evening prayer service with the thousands of youth that gathered at the Kiel Center in downtown St. Louis.

The pope made his entrance to deafening applause and a flurry of white and yellow handkerchiefs. The crowd chanted "We want you" and "John Paul II, we love you." He spoke in front of a sometimes hushed, sometime raucous crowd of young people at the arena.

A simple raising of arms or clenched fists from the pontiff produced bedlam.

"I was speechless," said 13-year-old Andy Forgy, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Columbia and an eighth-grader at Jefferson Junior High. "You won't see this again."

Since his days as a university chaplain in Krakow, Poland, Pope John Paul II has been recognized for his commitment to Catholic youth. In his homily, the pope used the setting of the sports arena to implore the crowd to give themselves to God without reservation.

Rather than preparing for athletic competition, the pope said the youth needed to train for a different goal -- that of following Christ and bringing his message to the world.

"It's like he's giving guidelines, 'Go out and preach,'" MU sophomore Jason McIntosh said. "It was a general message, but it was more powerful coming from the pope."

The pope's other theme was the gift of youth. The pope repeated the words of the apostle Paul: "Let no one have contempt for your youth."

Taylor Hall, 17, of Hickman High School, said the participation and excitement of youth during the papal visit was a tribute to the power of his generation.

"You hear about Generation X not being up with their faith," Taylor said. "This is a testament that we do care."

More than 120 high school and college students from Columbia-area parishes attended the Light of the World Youth Gathering. The daylong program of inspirational speakers and musicians primed the crowd for the pope's 6 p.m. appearance.

Ryan O'Hara, 24, a campus minister at the Newman Center, led 16 MU students to the gathering. "People on these trips come back with a new fire," O'Hara said.

Their day started at River Roads Mall in North St. Louis County. Volunteers in orange vests directed traffic as thousands arrived from all directions to board shuttle buses for downtown.

Despite the early morning chill, the crowd was jubilant. MU sophomore Mark Mannion came with his St. Louis-area parish, St. Claire's. Mannion said he was impressed with the pope's reception in Mexico City earlier this week.

"He unites people," Mannion said. He gestured at the lines waiting for buses. "Just look at this."

Several MU students skipped classes to see the pope.

"A couple of tests won't mean anything in a few years, but the pope will," said freshman Angie Weidinger.

People arrived at the Gateway Arch in swarms. Crowds walked the last mile of their pilgrimage down Market Street to the Kiel Center. Despite the throngs assembled, the walk through the streets was well organized. High spirits were the order of the day.

"It's great to see something alive and spirit-filled," Kinney said. "Things become routine, but this is like a spark."

Vendors along Market Street sold buttons, t-shirts, bandannas and other paraphernalia emblazoned with the pope's image as some wondered if the commercialization of the Holy Father was excessive or disrespectful.

"Disposable pope camera - why doesn't it sound right to me?" asked MU senior Jennifer Cafiero. "It's almost like something's lost."

Inside the Kiel Center, concession stands selling ice cream, pretzels and french fries lined the walls. Across the hallway, volunteer priests heard confessions in makeshift booths.

Students from Columbia-area high schools and MU were tucked into the back rows of the mezzanine level, underneath private boxes. Flags with the retired numbers of St. Louis Blues hockey players hung from the rafters.

Master of Ceremonies Steve Angrisano ignited the multitude with upbeat Christian tunes on his acoustic guitar. He implored the crowd to dance and sing along.

"If the sisters can do it, you can do it," Angrisano said as the big screen behind him showed three nuns. "If you feel stupid, you're doing it right."

Ola Duru, 16, said she was drifting off before the music began.

"This woke me up," the Hickman High School junior said. "It's something that we understand. It conveys to us what the Word is about, and sometimes the priests can't do it."

Music was the universal language as people from all denominations and religions felt the energy of the event.

Cafiero, a baptized Lutheran who is active at the Newman Center, joined her Catholic friends for the papal visit.

"We all believe in God and Jesus Christ," the MU senior said. "The other stuff is details."

After receiving an honorary St. Louis Blues hockey jersey at the end of the prayer service, the pope promised to be back in St. Louis.

"I'll return once more to play hockey," he said.