This column originally appeared in Catholic New York Sept. 24, 1987.
A roomful of Hollywood people who know something about holding center stage sat captivated for a half-hour one afternoon last week, watching on television monitors as Pope John Paul II dazzled—and was—dazzled by—a crowd of American teens. About 1,200 entertainment and communication figures (plus generous sprinkling of movie-TV headliners) were waiting for the pope themselves, at the Registry Hotel in Universal City, and quietly watched the monitors as the Holy Father traded smiles, stories and words of love with the teenagers in a near by auditorium.
It was television at its best, a point not lost on all the professionals in the room. Freed of his script, the pope was relaxed and informal. Young people asked him questions, in his own studio audience and from different points around the country. He offered a thoughtful answer to one youth who wanted to know how to remain hopeful at a time when so many young people were giving up on life. Then, with everyone else, he watched a filmed sequence showing teenegers in Portland, Ore., working with the homeless and the hungry.
“There,” the pope said when it was over. “You see your friends in Portland, Oregon, have answered your question better than l did.”
A few minutes later came what many feel was the emotional high point of the pope’s entire journey. Tony Melendez, born armless 25 years ago because of the effects of thalidomide, played the guitar with his toes as he sang a song of hope. By any standards it was a deeply moving moment, and the pope was moved no less than anyone else. He bounded down from his platform and rushed over to Melendez, taking him in his own arms and kissing him.
The entertainment people in the Registry ballroom went wild. They had applauded first as Melendez finished his song, then broke into cheers as Pope John Paul walked over to pay his personal tribute to the young singer. No opening act ever went better. By the time the Holy Father strode into the Registry, five or 10 minutes later, there was no way these movers and shakers would be contained. They ignored the advance request to remain seated (for security reasons), leaping to their feet and applauding enthusiastically.
A dozen of us were there as official representatives or the Catholic Press Association. I thought we might get the Bob Uecker seats, high in the bleachers, but instead we were ushered far up front and suddenly found ourselves making small talk with the celebrities in our midst. I can report, therefore, that people like Bob and Dolores Hope, Loretta Young, Charlton Heston and Patty Duke were as ga-ga over the pope’s appearance as anyone else. In the row behind me, Dom DeLuise and Charles Durning were having a great time discussing Durning’s recent PBS portrayal of Pope John XXIII, DeLuise playfully claiming he should have gotten the role because he had the weight advantage. (Not by much, I might add.)
The only performer I saw who seemed bored by the proceedings was Phil Donahue. When his wife, Marlo Thomas, made her way to the end of the aisle to touch the pope’s hand as he walked by, Donahue pointedly stayed in his place, looking a bit sour. Afterward he favored the press with his assessment of the Holy Father’s talk, claiming that when he refers to dialogue, “the pope ought to listen to his own words.”
It is difficult to imagine a more churlish reaction to a talk that was, at its heart, an invitation to reach for the heights. Personal choice was a key element in the pope’s message. He offered his thoughts, he said, to those who choose to listen; he challenged his audience to choose the common good—“to what is noble and lofty in human living…the highest expressions of the human spirit.”
All the pope was telling his high-powered audience was simply this: go for it. I think he touched more than a few of them. Not Donahue, maybe, but all those who chose to listen.