For so many people, John Paul II was a moral magnet, even in death. A commentator on PBS called him a pope for all seasons. One could understand why. The whole world could watch massive lines of people, 35 across, snaking through the streets of Rome. Eighteen thousand an hour, two million in all, walked by his body just for a glimpse. The waiting time was 24 hours when the line was finally closed. All this was taking place in a post-modern Europe, in a thoroughly secularized world. What was going on? What is the message?
Mysteriously, this man who was so utterly committed to his own faith reached so deeply down into his humanity that he could embrace the world’s diversity. He knew that there was some great subterranean reality that unites us. Others felt this. He was one with them.
Think of the 1950’s. Catholics could not enter a Protestant church and surely not attend Muslim or Jewish services. Pentecostal Christians and other Protestants thought us idolators. We thought them part of the Protestant Revolt.
But now we find a Catholic pope uncommonly praised and embraced by Islamic, Jewish and Hindu religious authorities as well as by world leaders. Their response matched his own. When John Paul II gathered people in Assisi to pray for peace, he invited Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian leaders. And of only two persons singled out in his testament, one was the chief rabbi of Rome.
I admired John Paul II from the beginning of his pontificate. Over the years I would be disturbed by strong criticisms, especially those made by some American Catholics who seemed to grow hostile to him. At his death, too, stern judgments usually came from Catholics or ex-Catholics. He had not met their measure.
Part of the problem may be due to the fact that John Paul II was a dialectical thinker. By dialectical I mean that his thought was a great interweaving of every strand of life. All parts are held together by the theme of human dignity: the conviction that we are endowed, from the very beginning to the very end of our existence, as persons intimately engaging the Holy Trinity. This dignity, he thought, must be affirmed and protected in all human affairs: political, economic, interpersonal, sexual, familial and in matters of life and death.
Since we all tend to like only those parts of a message that confirm our prejudices, certain American Catholics liked what the pope had to say about economic justice, the poor and peace, but became uneasy with and eventually angered by his views on sexuality, family, abortion, marriage and priesthood. In polar opposition, another group loved what he said about family, sexual and ecclesial matters, but were uneasy, at least at first, with his social and economic internationalism. Instead of becoming angry, however, this second group either ignored or relativized his teachings on war, capital punishment and economic justice and claimed him as exclusively their own. Both sides really lost.
I had my own disappointments. I wondered about his views on the priesthood and would have preferred more open discussion in the church. But I also know that John Paul II had more courage than I can even aspire to. I see that he had more substance than critics who blamed him for everything from the oppression of women to the spread of AIDS. I admired him even to the end - so unashamed was he of the diminishment of his considerable excellences of mind and body.
It was ironic that Easter Week was dominated by vigils over the dying. The last four days of the week were marked by the death of the pope in Rome, but the first three days were arresting for the dwindling away of Terri Schiavo in Florida.
The young Florida woman had benefited from every technological and legal means to extend her livingor dying. But in the end, all legal maneuvers exhausted, she could not even be given a piece of ice to provide minimal hydration. The Vicar of Christ, for his part, refrained from further treatment. He did not go back to the hospital that might have extended his life by weeks or months.
There is also irony in the pope’s dying so shortly after Terri Schiavo. Much of his life and teaching was devoted to the marginalized, to those considered beyond physical hope or moral redemption. He scandalized many by meeting dictators of the extreme right and left, opening his arms but offering his judgment of conscience. He confounded others by visiting and embracing the man who shot him. He angered still others by his relentless defense of the unborn, the profoundly wounded and prisoners condemned to death.
Only time will tell what the pope’s lasting legacy will be. I suspect that his radical vision of human dignity and his profound devotion to Christ, which made him more radical still, will long outlast the impact of his pontificate on politics and church management.
I worry at times about the world he has left. Where will we turn? Will we choose to flee our humanity, or will we embrace it wholeheartedly?
I worry, as well, about the church he left behind. Will we react as we so often do to the Gospels themselves: will we fragment the total vision, or dilute it, or attend to it only selectively?
When these worries weigh on me, however, I remember the faith with which he died; and I take comfort in the great theme of his life: Be not afraid.