Pope John Paul II at Mt Nebo near Amman, Jordan where some believe Moses first spied the promised land. (Found via The Inn at the End of the World)
For me being a convert Pope John Paul II was the only pope that I have known. Even though I am old enough to have lived through the reigns of a number of popes (I was born the day after Pope Pius XII died) they were not exactly on my radar. I was born during a interregnum and lived a virtual interregnum of not caring about a pope through most of my life. Growing up I had a vague awareness that there still was a Pope I would not have been able to say who it was. To me the idea of a pope fit into the same category as british judges wearing powder white wigs. My education for the most part was equally ambivalent about the existence of a pope other than that they worked to stifle science. The only memory I have about Paul VI was a derogatory poster I saw of him with the subtitle "No to the Pill!" I was still young enough to have no idea what this "pill" referred to (or that the picture was of Paul VI), but I assumed it was just another pope attacking science. Even though I attended a Catholic Church with my mother while in high school for about a year, judging by what I saw and heard they didn’t pay much or any attention to the Pope either.
My first recollection of John Paul II was hearing that he was shot. I was at sea at the time and though it odd that this happened so shortly after Ronald Reagan had been shot. I had no use for either of them at the time and the only connection I made was that I had heard a family member call Ronald Reagan the anti-Christ and I vaguely knew that some called the Pope that. I remember when the Pope visited New York, but the only thing I took away from it was venders selling cheap plastic trinkets to what I deemed as the ignorant faithful. Over the years as I was becoming more conservative and following the news closer I was hearing more and more references to John Paul II. Talk radio frequently had mentions of what the Pope had said and was surprised to find that I mostly agreed with what he had to say in regards to morality.
Growing up during the Cold War it was hard to imagine that there would ever be a change to the status quo during my life time. Serving in the Navy during this time when the reality of a Russian attack was ever present and where the appearance of a Russian Bear Tu-95 on the horizon was immediately met with our fighters on the Alert 5 brought this reality to us almost daily. To watch what was going on in Poland with the Pope’s friend Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity and the obvious reaction of the Polish people to the Pope’s visits there was to see something historic in action. As a kid Polish jokes were all the rage, but what was happening there was no joke and changed the balance of the world. I did not understand why the Pope had this effect. I just knew that he was somehow involved in this amazing transition. Seeing the Soviet Union collapse and finally the destruction of the Berlin wall was to see something totally unexpected.
I had a growing respect for the Pope especially in regards to pro-life issues and marriage. It was just too bad he had all those archaic religious trappings and that belief in God thing. I also had the same opinions of Evangelicals like Billy Graham and others. I was finding myself agreeing with what they had to say, just not the foundation of why they believed it. Because my wife is a cradle Catholic we use to watch the Christmas and Easter Masses on television. I was amazed by the Holy Father and his force of personality. That even though he was the head of the Catholic Church and the leader of millions that there was seemingly no undue pride in the man. That even with the fancy clothes and the religious believers obvious delight in him that he appeared to me a humble man who truly loved others. That he never saw just a crowd but the individual human persons who made up the crowd. That what he treasured most was the joy of the children that he saw.
Later when I was in my read everything in the library about religion phase I came across the encyclical "The Gospel of Life." Before I read this I had considered myself to be pro-life. After reading it I saw that I was nowhere pro-life enough. This is one of his easiest to read encyclicals and so it is a good thing I pick this up first and not say for instance "Love and Responsibility." His writing to me brought into coherence the teachings of the Church in regard to sanctity of life that there was a well-founded philosophical basis for what the Church teaches as it does. I also liked how this encyclical was also addressed to "all People of Good Will." That what the Church had to teach was not limited to just Catholics and was open to all via the natural law. Shortly after this I read the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which I found to be a great gift given to us from his pontificate. I also read some of his other encyclical like Faith and Reason (FIDES ET RATIO.)
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves
This encyclical really helped me since so long I had seen the false dichotomy of faith and reason. Also influential to me is his encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
The splendour of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: "Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord" (Ps 4:6).
I like to think I have lived a life in search of and response to truth and this why my domain name is splendoroftruth.com. Now the Holy Father is with Jesus who is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. The Pope might have passed into the next world, though his legacy will not pass. He has left the Church even spiritually richer than when he became Pope. From his writing like the Theology of the Body to giving us the Mysteries of Light his memory will not soon be forgotten. Every time I hear the phrase he coined "the culture of life" and "the culture of death" I will remember him.
With the Pope’s passing their is also this mixed anticipation of our next Holy Father. This process is always an exciting time in the Church and for a newbie like me it is even more exciting. Before seeing white smoke only meant I needed to buy a new muffler, now it means that we will have a new papa. Whoever the next pope is will have large shoes to fill. Though in reality all popes have large shoes (or is that large sandal) to fill because as the Vicar of Christ or as Saint Catherine of Siena called the "sweet Christ on earth." Listening to long time Catholics describing their memories of when a new pope is elected, I always had a sort of envy of that experience.
Another integral part of his pontificate was his commitment to Jesus’s high priestly prayer "that they may be one" (Ut Unum Sint.) His commitment to a true ecumenism that neither downplayed religious differences or made them farther apart then they might be. His wish that the Eastern and Western Church might once again breathe with both lungs did not occur during his lifetime, but the seeds he planted might come to fruition at some future time. The schism hasn’t ended but the thin theological and mainly political chasm between us is not as wide as it was. His tireless work in regards to previous mistakes in regards to the Jewish people will not soon be forgotten. His impact on believers in Protestant churches was also great. While there are still fanatical anti-Catholics you are are more likely now to run into those who saw the Pope as a brother in Christ instead of an anti-Christ.
This process is kind of bitter-sweet in mourning the passage of the Pope and at the same time awaiting the next pope. I am not looking forward to much of the coverage of this time period in fact I think it will be downright purgatorial. To hear the constant refrains of liberal and conservative in relation to the election. That the coverage will be closer to a merely political election compared to what it is. Hopefully we will not be treated to polls of who the new pope will be or any other horse race coverage. We will of course get the endless speculation of what the next pope is going to change to finally conform to the modern world. That condoms, women’s ordination, and sexually theology will be constantly mentioned by those who have no idea about the nature of the Church (including unfortunately Catholics.) I have often wondered if a thousand or two thousand years from now (if Christ does not return first) what the world will make of a Catholic Church that still has not given up its beliefs to embrace whatever passes for modern beliefs? Christ was a sign of contradiction and surely his Church will also be one.
So again thank you Holy Father John Paul II for your life and witness, your intellect and humility, your love of both God and neighbor. He was both an optimist and a mystic so I guess that made him optomystic. Victor Lams said it perfectly when he recently said.
I told Fr. Paul that if we thought Pope John Paul II did a lot for the Church before, only imagine what he can do for us now.
Amen to that. I will leave you with the only Pope John Paull II joke I have written.
If Catholics started a movement where once a year at Catholic schools they
gathered around a statue of Pope John Paul II and prayed would it also be called "See you at the Pole"?
* In a related note due to the impact of finding the Pope’s encyclical at a local library I will highly recommend Nancy C. Brown’s article in the latest This Rock magazine (April 2005) called "Evangelizing your library." (along with her blog Flying Stars)
*blog template background will be black during the Interregnum.