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

January 28, 1999


ST. LOUIS - Not every Mass begins with cheers and catcalls. Not every Mass is celebrated where the St. Louis Rams play home football games. Nor is Mass usually crawling with Secret Service agents whispering into their radios.

But not every Mass is conducted by Pope John Paul II.

About 110,000 people in the Trans World Dome and adjoining Cervantes Convention Center celebrated Mass with the pope on Wednesday morning. The eager crowds, who lined up before dawn, knew just how unique this Mass would be.

"It's gonna be exciting to see a Mass by the pope, who's the holiest man on Earth," said 9-year-old Allison Meyer, who attends Columbia Catholic School.

Although this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people, Barbara Kernell has already seen the pope twice, once in Rome and once near Des Moines, Iowa. Still, she was thrilled to see the pope in her home state.

"You feel a oneness with people from all over the country," said Kernell, 65, of Columbia. "They have come up to show that God is alive and well in mid-America."

For Kernell's friend Missy Bell, 44, the Mass had extra significance.

"I just feel blessed because I'm a convert to Catholicism," Bell said. "It's very special for me because I'm kind of getting back in the church. I just hope I have a spiritual renewal."

Two buses, carrying 100 mid-Missourians who had won tickets to the Mass in parish lotteries, left Columbia at 1 a.m. and arrived at the convention center three hours later as the doors were opening.

"It was worth the trip," said Allison's mother, Teresa Meyer, 37, of Columbia. "It was worth the wait and getting up at midnight."

Only the 75,000 people packed in the dome saw the Mass in person. The remaining 35,000 people, including the Columbia group, were seated on the concrete floor of the convention center in folding chairs. They didn't seem to mind watching the pope celebrate Mass on overhead television screens.

"It won't be as exciting as in the dome, but it's still much better than home," Meyer said.

At 4 a.m., the call to worship was blown with a shofar, a ram's horn used to open and close the Jewish High Holy Days. Those reaching their seats early listened to choir music and watched the procession of nuns, priests and bishops file slowly toward the sanctuary. A replica of the Gateway Arch rose behind the altar.

Because Wednesday was not a special feast day, there was no particular Mass to be celebrated. The pope chose the Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In his homily, John Paul spoke against racism, abortion, assisted suicide and capital punishment.

"The dignity of life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil," the pope said.

More than 200 priests and deacons helped to give communion to the congregation, the largest ever assembled indoors in the United States.

Before leading Mass at the dome, the pope slowly circled the center in his popemobile, sparking a wave of cheers and camera flashes. People stood on chairs and craned their necks to see the pontiff's face. Many were brought to tears.

Russ Carmichael got goosebumps when he saw the pope pass.

"When I watched on TV, I saw people who saw the pope get emotional," said Carmichael, 42, of Columbia. "But I thought, I'm not going to be like that. When I saw him, tears came to my eyes; there was a lump in my throat, and all I saw was a glimpse of his head."

Not everyone was so inspired by the pope's visit. Down the street, members of American Atheists held signs reading "Stop Vatican War Against Women, Gays, and Civil Liberties," and "Our Taxes Are Paying For This."

"Not everyone agrees with the pope's agenda for America," said organization president Ellen Johnson. "We're one nation under the constitution, not under God."

A group on the next corner handed religious leaflets to passers-by while vendors sold buttons, hats, scarves and books. Organizers predicted crowds would swamp businesses and clog traffic, but away from the dome, downtown streets were nearly deserted. Some businesses closed during the two-day papal visit.

Fouad Wehbe, 35, owner of Wehbe's Safari Cafe on North 6th Street, wondered about the city's visitor estimates of a half-million.

"The dome takes 100,000," he said. "You still have 400,000 roaming around, but where are they?"

Wehbe considered closing his doors but decided against it. Instead, he hired three temporary workers to double his staff, brought in extra food and rented equipment. On Tuesday, the first day of the pope's visit, business was one-quarter of normal.

"They talked too much about it and scared people off," Wehbe said. "I think they overplanned it. We didn't see any foot traffic at all."