Roman Catholics throughout the United States are attending special church services this week to honor Pope John Paul, whose funeral will be held Friday in Rome. There is also a great deal of interest among both Catholics and non-Catholics over who the next pope will be.
Although the usual tourists continue to stream through the square in front of Saint Louis Cathedral, the mood is more subdued than in normal times. The building, with its two commanding steeples, is draped in black to mark the passing of the pope. Saint Louis Cathedral is the oldest continually-active Catholic cathedral in the United States. Its parishioners include descendants of the old Spanish and French Creole and Acadian settlers, as well as more recent immigrants from such places as Ireland, Italy and Latin America.
Catholics and non-Catholics, alike, are visiting the cathedral these days, to see where Pope John Paul presided over a mass during a 1987 visit and to ponder his legacy. Local artist Michael McClear is an Episcopalian, but he says everyone here in New Orleans has felt the loss of the pope.
"It seems like a lot of people are very sad and are wondering what is going to happen with the new pope," said Mr. McClear. He says the power and influence of the Catholic Church is such that this speculation is not just for members of the church.
"With a billion members of anything, I think it would make a big difference in the world who is actually in charge of the Catholic Church," added Mr. McClear. "In modern times with this mass communication, I believe that people in this realm of power will have more and more say-so with what will happen in world events."
Among the nation's 65 million Catholics, there is sorrow mixed with some anxiety. Many American Catholics have been deeply shaken in recent years by revelations that some priests sexually abused young boys. Millions of Catholics - even though they admired Pope John Paul - disagreed with his opposition to marriage for priests, to the ordination of women as priests and to the use of contraceptives for birth control. They now wonder who the new pope will be and in what direction he will take the church.
Alicia Lamberton-Calhoun is one of them. "It is something they are going to need to take a look at right now, because they are having problems with the priesthood. I think they are really going to have to think about what is going to be good for the church, as a whole, and what society, in general, can live up to," she said. "It is true, there are very many people who are Catholic - myself included - that cannot embrace some of those conservative issues. Yet, I feel very much a Catholic and part of the Catholic community."
Millions of other Catholics strongly support the more-conservative stance, saying it correctly reflects the teachings of the Bible.
In addition to church services and prayer sessions, here in New Orleans, will be open discussions on the campus of the Catholic Loyola University here over the legacy of Pope John Paul and the future of the church.