Eight years ago, Pope John Paul II visited America's Roman Catholic ``past'' - Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholic communities of the northern states. Today the Pope begins a 10-day, nine-city trip to the ``future'' of the United States' Catholic Church - the rapidly growing Hispanic communities of the southern states which likely will make up 50 percent of the US Catholic church by the end of the century.
Vatican officials here have toiled for months to chart a trip which will complement the visit the Pope made in 1979 to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, traditionally strong centers of US Catholicism.
This trip the Pope will visit Miami, Columbia (S.C.), New Orleans, San Antonio (Texas), Phoenix, and Los Angeles, Monterey, Carmel, and San Francisco in California, before a northern stop in Detroit and a final brief side-trip to Fort Simpson in northern Canada.
The purpose of the trip, the 36th the Pontiff has made outside of Italy, is to ``strengthen the Catholic faith'' in the US, Vatican officials say. In the past 20 years, American Catholicism has experienced sharp declines in many outward measures of church life, from the number of new priests and nuns to the number of Catholics attending church each Sunday.
``The church in the US faces problems that are similar to those in other Western countries,'' says papal adviser Archbishop Jan Achotte.
``Society shows signs of an increased secularism and materialism,'' he says. ``There is also an increasing but gratuitous assumption that one can tailor one's church to one's own desires and turn it into a `pick and choose' church where it is accepted that being Catholic has little to do with adhering to all the church's teachings.''
Although the trip's main goal is to consolidate the American Catholic Church - one of the most numerous and unquestionably the wealthiest national Catholic community in the world - the trip also is remarkable for the number of non-Catholic groups the Pope is scheduled to meet.
The Pope's program includes:
An hour tomorrow with members of the US Jewish community, in Miami.
An hour's ecumenical ``dialogue'' later on Friday with 27 leaders of American Protestant churches, in Columbia.
An encounter Monday with 16,000 Native Americans in Phoenix.
A meeting Sept. 16 with about 850 representatives of non-Christian religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews in Los Angeles.
The Pope also is scheduled to meet on Sept. 17 about 100 victims of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and their families in California.
About 53.5 million Americans, or about 22 percent of the US population is Roman Catholic, according to Vatican figures. US Catholics are led by 405 bishops in 184 dioceses. There are about 55,000 priests and 115,000 nuns, with an additional 8,000 permanent deacons and 8,000 religious brothers. The Catholic church runs 14,500 grammar schools, high schools, colleges and universities and 3,700 hospitals and health-care facilities, the Vatican numbers show.
The cost of the Pope's trip - some $22 million to be paid for by the American dioceses visited, has been criticized by some who have said the money would be better spent on helping the poor.
Church officials defend the costs, saying the church spends $20 million every three days for charitable works.
``If the people listen to the Pope's message, there will be an outpouring of charity which will far outweigh the costs of the trip,'' says the Rev. Ken Doyle, press spokesman for the US Bishops' Conference at the Vatican.
``And, I like to point out that McDonald's spent $829,000 a day in 1985 on advertising to sell hamburgers,'' he adds. ``If such expenses can be justified to sell fast food, the expenses for this trip ought to be far more justifiable.''