The Monterey Pope Festival

in 1967, the first real rock festival ever — the Monterey Pop Festival — took place at the Monterey County Fairgrounds outside Monterey, California. Sixty thousand people attended.

On September 17, 1987, Pope John Paul II gave mass to fifty thousand Monterey-area farmworkers at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway, from an altar made of artfully-arranged packing crates. He spoke for just treatment and wages for ag workers everywhere. The locals dubbed the event “The Monterey…” you know.

A Lutheran clergyman who attended shared this snapshot with me:

It’s not a holy event without media.

“Monterey Pope Festival” is no kind of official shirt, and I’ve no idea who made it: a great deal of tourist schlock was produced for John Paul II’s visit here.

But the t-shirt is apt: John Paul II was a superstar of religion. He toured the world like any rock star, with a massive retinue of roadies and security to set up, break down, and police his appearances before adoring crowds. Over 750,000 miles of touring in his career.

Many Catholics absolutely worshipped him and sang along. Many others didn’t like the music, and they had good reasons. But he made a big sound and could not be ignored. After he died, John Paul II’s advocates sent him to the Hall of Fame — sainthood — in record time.

So why not give him a boss guitar, wrap-arounds and a bluesman’s stubble? It’s not a bad metaphor. I’m told that some of his U.S. roadies had their own satin “John Paul II Tour” jackets made. I’d love to see one.

John Paul’s appearance in Monterey was one of several he made on a swing through the U.S. South and west in Summer ’87. After mass at Laguna Seca, he flew straight to San Francisco by U.S. Marine helicopter.

San Francisco’s reaction to John Paul proved cool; crowds were sparse along his parade route across town. He’d underperformed at Monterey, too: the farmworkers turned out in force, but other Catholics? Not as many as expected.

So an additional procession was held that day in San Francisco, at twilight. And that’s where I saw him, from the sidewalk on Van Ness Avenue on my way home from work. More precisely I saw a vague shape standing behind bullet-proof glass in a briskly-driven Mercedes popemobile. Yes, they’re really called popemobiles.

The Pope and the Popemobile, probably on 9/18/87 at Candlestick Park.

I was standing on Van Ness in front of the Opera House. I was also standing at the intersection of fame, spirituality, and power: a very interesting place in this day and age. Of the three, spirituality seems too often pushed to the back. Even when in theory it’s the reason that anyone’s in the room at all.

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