Most famous sinner greets his Holiness

AMERICAN CATHOLICS flocked from across the Midwest to St Louis on the banks of the Mississippi yesterday for a glimpse of their spiritual leader on earth, John Paul II, the 263rd successor to the fisherman, St Peter. One Southern Baptist was there too, a Protestant who may yet have had special hopes for redemption. He was Bill Clinton. The world's most famous sinner had come to meet its most famous forgiver of sins.

For St Louis, the attendance of the President at the airport at the moment of the Pope's touchdown, direct from his three-day visit in Mexico, was a mere aside, a moment of diplomatic ritual. This city, at the heart of one of the most Catholic regions of the country, was welcoming a Pope into its midst for the first time in its history. It was a time for joy, not one for thoughts about philandering and cover-up.

Who, though, could ignore the awkwardness of the Pope clasping hands with a president whose political fate was at the very same moment in the balance a thousand miles to the East, because of a woman named Monica and the weakness of his flesh? And who could not wonder at what was said between them when, after the welcoming ceremonies, they vanished together for a 30-minute meeting alone? The last time the President met the Pope was in October 1995 - one month before he and Ms Lewinsky began their affair.

Mr Clinton, as a Baptist, could not ask to confess and seek absolution. But the President is a spiritual man, who has been seeking pastoral care from two Protestant ministers since he owned up to his infidelity. The Pope may have wanted only to broach with the President his well-known anxieties about American society and politics - his opposition to abortion, capital punishment and drugs and his concern about the gulf between rich and poor.

Stooped with infirmity and slurring his words, the Pope spoke of them to his hosts at the airport. "Today, the country is between a culture that cherishes and celebrates the gift of life," he said, "and then a culture that seeks to declare whole groups, the weak, the unborn, the handicapped and others considered unuseful to be outside the boundaries of legal protection".

The first in a crowded schedule of events, which will include a mass this morning for 100,000 worshippers inside a giant sports dome, was a "Walk in the Light March" by thousands of young Catholics who last night attended a rally with the Pope inside a convention centre.

Early estimates that one million people would come to see John Paul II, on his 85th foreign visit since becoming Pope in 1978, appeared to have been overblown. Organisers conceded that the numbers were lower than expected, perhaps because of warnings about human gridlock in the city.

Waiting in the early hours yesterday, Mike Mostardi, 19, a student in chemical engineering, was blunt about why he was there. He just wanted to see the Pope. "He's the big dog," he said. And he had no problem with the President seeking forgiveness from his Holiness for his infidelity.

"I think he's doing it to get some positives on his account. It's a good healing thing for the President and it might be for the United States too."