Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, April 04, 2005

I first saw the announcement on the Bloomberg news ticker on the Hong Kong station. Pope John Paul is dead.

Pope John Paul changed the world in a way that few people in his generation have. Perhaps young people who have grown up knowing nothing else would not appreciate how unique he was. But I remember what it was like before John Paul. Devout Catholics may have thought the pope infallible, but to most of the world, the Catholic popes were viewed as stuffy old men who waved and spoke Latin. This guy was definitely different.

Many believe his greatest contribution was the way he reached out to the Jews. The right-wingers on Israel National Radio are quick to point out that he issued a joint statement with Yasser Arafat calling for the maintenence of Jerusalem as an international city. Nevertheless, even they could not resist a complement, "Everyone knows that the Catholic Church is a very anti-semetic sect. Pope John Paul was known to be less anti-semtic."

Faint praise, and unfairly so. John Paul was the first pontif in 2000 years to visit the Synagogue in Rome, and he refered to the Jews as "our elder brothers." Again, young people who have not known another dimension would not appreciate this, but I remember what the Catholic church was like before John Paul. The Jews were still viewed by many Catholics as "Christ Killers," and, as incredible as it now seems, the Vatican did not recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation. Pope John Paul changed all that.

During the days that I was living on the road, I used to obtain books on tape through a rental service at the truck stops. I would rent the book, then turn it in within two weeks at one of the truckstops on the list. I "read" dozens and dozens of books this way. One of them was John Paul's "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." I was very interested to hear how he would address the issue of Israel and the Jews. When it comes to treatment of the Jews, the Catholic Church does not have a good history. Jews remember (even if no one else does) the concordat that the Pope signed with Hitler, in order to protect the wealth of the Vatican. [To get a feel for this time in history, I recommend The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck.]

Perhaps events would have taken their course anyway--maybe or maybe not. But Pope John Paul was not complacent. He did not make a political issue out of it. But he did force the issue by stating his personal position on the matter calmly and clearly.

It is hard to resist the parallel between the death of John Paul and Terri Schiavo and that of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa during the summer of 1997. The parallel is more than a bit ironic. Princess Diana and Terri Schiavo were both women whose wreckless, self-destructive behavior eventually led to their deaths. We can't help feeling some sympathy for them, because they were both stuck with husbands who (forgive the understatement) did not "love their wives as Christ loved the Church." Yet, mixed with that sympathy is a certain sense of pathos...wishing they could have done better--could have dealt with their frustrations with a bit more character and nobility. Still, we all know our own weaknesses. So we are left to mutter "Oh, what fools we mortals be."

In sharp contrast, Mother Theresa and John Paul represent the best that Eastern Europe had to offer. Whatever else can be said about them, they both played the hand that was dealt them so very, very well. They remind us what greatness can emerge from a life which does not use misfortune and difficulty as an excuse to be less than what God has called us to be.

Pope John Paul's writing is not quite as rich with the references to Jesus as a personal friend as was characteristic of Mother Theresa's writing. But he was clear in his rebuke of those who would subvert the name of Christ, especially those who wanted to remove the name of Jesus from the public square, "the exclusion of Christ from history is an act against man."

There is a certain sense in which a person of such noteriety is viewed as having some measure of worth merely because of his celebrity status. All the acouterments of the office tend to blind one to the eventual humanity of the man himself. Got to admit, if the President of the United States walked into my room right now, I guess I would at least stand up. But when it comes to matters of truth and justice, then religious pomp and ceremony don't impress me much. They don't impress God, either. Hear words of Amos the prophet:

I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

I was in graduate school at the University of Regina when Pope John Paul came to Canada. He was stopping at various places across the country, when he ran into a storm. The plane he was on had to land at Yellowknife, where there was no one waiting for him. The media was not prepared, but someone had a camera. I will never forget the sight of that very ordinary man getting of the plane and walking to the terminal. No red carpet, no entourage. Many Catholics would consider it a rare privilege to go to Rome and have an audience with the Pope. I would rather see him in Yellowknife, because I want to know what he looks like without all the fancy clothes. This is my point about John Paul. He was not a great man because of the greatness of his position. He was a great man becuase he was a great man before he became a great man.

Pope John Paul was certainly not without controversy, and he had his weaknesses. For example, he deplored the tremendous spiritual awakenings in Latin America because they involved people leaving the Catholic church. But in a Catholocism where worshipping God is mixed with worshiping volcanos, leaving the Catholic Church could be the most Christian thing a person could do. Salvation does not come through the Church. Salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And if one must leave the Catholic Church (or any church, for that matter) to find that relationship, then so be it. Scripture says that "there is no other Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) And that Name is not John Paul. Having said that, it is important to reiterate that while I owe no allegiance to any man's religion, I am still bound by principle to recognize and honor those from any religion who have gone out on a limb to stand for truth and justice. I am not a Roman Catholic, so I have no religious reasons to give honor to the Pope. But Scripture says we are to give to every man the honor that is due him (Romans 13:7).

I believe the greatest honor is due Pope John for the part he played in bringing an end to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe that Gerald Ford denied, but that was very, very real for the people of Poland. Most of his contribution took place before he became Pope, because he always spoke very forthrightly about the importance of the church being independent. But after he became Pope, he personally went to Poland and he met personally with Lech Walesa. Lech Welesa, you may remember, was the union leader who made "Solidarity" a household word around the world. Once again, those who grew up after the wall fell tend to take the end of the cold war for granted. But the cold war came to an end because certain key people took a stand when it was very important to do so. In the case of Poland, two people come to mind. One is the electrician from Gdansk. The other is the parish priest who became Pope John Paul.

The death of John Paul is in many ways the end of an era. And I must say that I do not have high hopes for the Catholic Church. They won't find a man like this again.

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