The Pope Comes Calling

Pope John Paul II is a man with an almost superstitious belief in historical coincidence. He is bedazzled by dates. This week, on his fourth-and quite likely last-visit to the United States, the pope will address the United Nations on its 50th anniversary. It will also be 80 years to the day that Paul VI became the first pope to visit the United States-and to address the United Nations. Back then, the United Nations had only 117 member states, China was still an outlaw nation and Paul's chief concern was the threat of nuclear war. The world is very different now. There is no Iron Curtain in Europe. China sits on the U.N. Security Council. In Cuba, the pope has installed a cardinal in Havana--the first under Castro-and the Vatican has opened an office for human rights. In return, the church has funneled $18 million in humanitarian aid to Cuba and even raised prospects of a papal visit.

What hasn't changed is the pomp and festive air, the urban gridlock and the jostling crowds that attend every papal visitation. In his five-day sweep John Patti II will say four outdoor masses-two at sports stadiums, one at. a racetrack and one in New York's Central Park. He'll pray with President Bill Clinton in Newark, N.J., meet with rabbis and other religious leaders in New York City and parade through Baltimore.

But John Paul's main concern is the United Nations and what it stands for. Human fights, as spelled out in the U.N. Declaration of 1948, were central to the Polish pope's early and politically decisive criticisms of communism. Now, in the last phase of his papacy, John Paul's focus is on the obligations all nations owe to their own people, and to each other. At three U.N.-sponsored conferences in the last 24 months, the pope and his emissaries have tried to ground human rights in his vision of a universal moral order. Over the same period, he has repeatedly apologized for the church's own failures to advance human rights, especially those of women.

Peace and justice: Certain themes of the pope's address at the United Nations are predictable. Like Paul VI, this pope sees no peace or justice for the world without greater support of poor nations by the rich. In Africa last month he specifically called on the international community to end the sale of arms to the region and to increase aid to refugees. Speaking directly to Africa's elites, he condemned "corrupt political leaders who, in connivance with domestic or foreign private interests, divert national resources for their own profit and transfer public funds to private accounts in foreign banks." Concern for the developing countries will also top his private meeting with President Clinton. "Both men feel a need to work together on social and economic issues," says Raymond Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

That's the easy part. Then there's abortion. At world conferences in Cairo and Beijing, the Vatican bucked a drive to add abortion to the United Nations' list of human rights. This week the pope will again insist that social and economic development-not contraceptives and abortion-are the answers to population growth and the advancement of women. For their part, the American Catholic bishops last week issued a powerful pastoral message decrying abortion and euthanasia as acts of "infidelity" within the family and rejecting the culture of"choice" as a betrayal of human solidarity. John Paul is expected to adopt that line at the United Nations in his remarks on women's roles in modern societies.

John Paul sees human rights as a sword that cuts two ways in international debate. Against countries like China, he defends the notion that human rights are universal and cannot be abridged by claims of cultural difference. Against many Western antagonists, he rejects the notion that rights--especially "reproductive rights"--belong only to individuals. Families, parents and religions, he believes, are also part of the weave of human rights and solidarity that make freedom morally responsible.

The Roman Catholic Church has not always embraced the idea of human rights. Indeed, 250 years ago, the fathers of the French Enlightenment rejected the "tyranny" of the Catholic Church precisely in the name of universal human rights. Now, in the figure of an aging Polish pope, the human-rights tradition finds one of its most dogged defenders. It may be ironic, but it is one more coincidence of history relished by John Paul II.

With this schedule, there's no time for papal sightseeing.

Wednesday, Oct. 4: John Paul II arrives at Newark, NJ., airport; President Clinton will greet him.

Thursday, Oct. 5: Addresses U.N. General Assembly. Says mass at Giants Stadium.

Friday, Oct. 6: Celebrates mass at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Saturday, Oct. 7: Presides at mass in Central Park.

Sunday, Oct. 8: Tours Baltimore. Speaks at airport before departing for Rome.