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Papal Visit Puts Focus On Denver, Catholic Rifts


MCDONALD'S restaurants have ordered enough quarter pounders to stretch 15 miles end-to-end. Manhole covers have been welded shut as a security precaution. Stores are doing a brisk business in "pope scopes" - cardboard viewing devices.

Local leaders are preening for the arrival of a pope and a president Aug. 12. The arrival of Pope John Paul II for a world-youth conclave, and his brief meeting with President Clinton, will give an economic and civic boost to a state whose most familiar headline the past year has been turmoil over an anti-gay-rights law. It will also give the Roman Catholic Church a chance to reach out to a generation not always enchanted with Vatican pronouncements and doctrine.

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But behind all the politics and papal pageantry also loom sensitive issues that will garner klieg-light attention. Denver is struggling to cope with an outbreak of youth violence, while the Catholic Church faces serious rifts over issues from abortion to the role of women in the church.

"We aren't protesting his coming," says Tom Kerwin, a Denver lawyer and member of Catholic Organizations for Renewal, a coalition unhappy about the direction of the church. The group is planning to stage "alternative events" this week. "We just feel an obligation to educate the bishops about what the church is all about."

Some 170,000 people between the ages of 13 and 19 are expected to attend World Youth Day. This meeting starts Aug. 11 and ends Aug. 15, when the pope is to celebrate an outdoor mass before up to 500,000 people, the largest gathering in Colorado history.

Among Catholics and civic leaders there is a giddiness over the first papal visit and the recognition it brings a city always eager to show it has graduated from cowtown to urban sophisticate.

Billboards, banners, and bunting welcome the pope. Papal mugs, ties, and T-shirts are selling like tickets to the Rockies' baseball games. Newspapers have been charting every conceivable angle of the visit, and a few more, down to the food the pope eats. Indeed, the other visitor of the week, President Clinton, has become almost an asterisk.

"It's just like he's another politician coming to town, " says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster.

The chamber of commerce estimates the gathering will pump $161 million into the local economy, the most ever for a single event. Yet there will also be costs: More than $1.2 million for extra fire, transportation, and safety services. Tired of the hype and worried about traffic, some residents are headed out of town as fast as others are coming in.

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Among those who will be putting in overtime will be law enforcement authorities. In the past month, the city has seen a spate of shootings, several of them gang related, that has stunned a city not used to random violence.

Police have launched a crackdown, neighborhood groups have staged peace marches, and Gov. Roy Romer (D) has called a special session of the legislature. No one wants to see more gunplay - with or without the world watching.

"It is a concern here," says Robert Wurmstedt of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank. "It is something we haven't had to deal with before."

Authorities will also be monitoring protests that will accompany the religious meeting. Forces on both sides of the abortion issue plan marches.

Within the Catholic Church, liberals and others intend to stage prayer vigils, press conferences, and other events to make their dissidence known on topics from divorce to priest celibacy.

A recent Gallup poll found that 87 percent of American Catholics agreed that couples should make their own decisions on birth control, while 67 percent favored allowing women to be ordained as priests. Bishops respond that the church is not a democracy and morality should not be decided by a popularity contest.

Organizers of the meeting hope it will highlight unity rather than dissension - and foster a commitment among young people. Like many organized religions, the Catholic Church faces its challenges in keeping the young in pews.

"Obviously the pope is making an effort to reach out to young people and give them some identification with the papacy," says the Rev. John Boyle, professor of religion at the University of Iowa.

Planners say one reason Denver was chosen for the fourth World Youth Day is its large Hispanic population. Latinos represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the Catholic church in America. Even here, though, the church faces challenges.

"You are finding an increasing number of Latinos gravitating toward other denominations," says Ramon Del Castillo, a sociologist at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He cites the lack of cultural and spiritual sensitivity in some churches, and the desire by many Latinos to be more involved in decisionmaking.

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