POPE John Paul II has set off on an important and remarkably attention-getting visit to America. As sheer traveling spectacle, the Pontiff's 10-day tour borrows from the techniques of presidential campaigns, rock star tours, evangelist revival meetings, and the new itinerancy which satellite technology affords television anchor teams. The road shows of today's world leaders, as public theater, reflect a confluence of techniques that are in advance of what has gone before.
Of prospective visits to America by world leaders, only that by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - as yet unscheduled - would likely surpass Pope John's in attention-getting, and in the effort by Americans to make sure that their own values are understood. America's differences with the closed Soviet system - an antireligious system at that - are so profound that the collision would be absolutely fascinating to observe.
John Paul's visit is generating a healthy reception of its own. The Pope has been an articulate, energetic, compassionate, and courageous church leader. His visits to his homeland in Poland, the personal saga of the assassination attempt on his life, have shown a moving resilience. At the same time, he has resolutely held to traditional church positions on subjects like abortion, celibacy, and the role of women in church affairs; these put him in conflict with changing times.
Catholics in America on most social and political issues are like non-Catholics. They are mainstream in their views. As Americans they are influenced by certain democratic principles. Their heritage of religious freedom and intellectual independence, their mistrust of monarchy and ecclesiastical authority that go back to the founding of the world's oldest continuing democracy, lend an ambivalence to their reception of church leaders. Americans like to be good hosts, and President Reagan's visit with John Paul in Miami may send a positive message to many Americans. But Americans also prefer public figures to keep their religion and their politics separate - as political figures on the ``religious right'' are finding out. John Paul's allusions to the Constitution's bicentennial show his sensitivity on this subject.
The Roman Catholic Church in America is itself changing. Its fast-growing Hispanic contingent will approximate half its membership by the end of the century. Recruits for the priesthood get harder to come by; married deacons and the laity are taking up the slack in running local church affairs.
Modern ecumenism is also making its influence felt. Jewish-Roman Catholic relations have been improving in recent years; but the Vatican's recent reception of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, implicated in persecution of Jews as a German Army officer during World War II, reveals a gap yet to be fully bridged. Meetings on his tour with US Protestant and Jewish leaders acknowledge the growing impact of religious pluralism and dialogue in America.
During his visit John Paul is emphasizing the need to distinguish between material and spiritual goals in individual lives. The urgency of helping the unfortunate, of living moral and ethical lives, of service to more than self, bears attention.
The world is bigger than the distance between America's shores. A materially self-satisfied America would be a fat, purposeless giant. John Paul's visit helps remind Americans of the larger world in which they must live as spiritually and socially responsible citizens.