06 April, 2005

More thoughts on the pope's passing

If I feel this much sorrow when a great Pope dies — a man who was a devoted follower of Jesus Christ — how much greater the disciples' sorrow must have been when Jesus himself died! If I feel this much respect for the man's life and teachings, how much greater respect must I feel for Christ's life and teachings!

I am sure that John Paul must be a saint, because he points the way to Christ. I hope that future iconography of him will depict him in much the same manner as his beloved Mary is best portrayed: gesturing towards Christ. Everything I've read by this pope points to Christ; he considered everything in the illumination of faith in Christ. Everything.

My first memory of Catholicism — perhaps my first memory of religion, period — is of writing a "current events report" for my school about the assassination attempt in 1981. We had to do something like this every week, and the report was to address the questions Who? What? When? Where? Why is it important? Of course, a nine-year-old boy has only a vague idea why the attempted assassination of a pope is important. All I remember of the report, is of drawing a picture of a bullet with an angry-looking face. I didn't understand the importance of the Pope at that time (it would be sixteen more years before I would enter the Catholic Church) but I understood that something important had happened.

Now that the Pope has passed beyond the confines of this earthly veil, I find myself facing this question for the first time: what is Catholicism without John Paul II as pope? It's a stupid question; I have lived my Catholicism with very little consciousness of him, and I have studied the history of the Catholic Church. I should have a very good idea of it. Yet John Paul's impact has been powerful and deep; those who refer to him as John Paul the Great will be vindicated by history.

I have realized recently that he remained beneath the surface of my conscious thoughts the entire time, teaching quietly through his actions. His courageous handling of the frailties of age, and his unwavering condemnation of escaping the realities of life, guided me while I was accompanying my Italian grandmother through the last days of life.

Nonna and her sister were awed by his unashamed public appearances: the curved back, the trembling hand, etc. She did not live to see the silent sermon of his final Urbi et Orbi address, but I imagine she would have been deeply impressed. Guarda a com'è ridotto, they would remark to each other, shaking their heads; Soffre come noi, il poveretto! ("Look at what he is reduced to; the poor man, he suffers as we do!")

John Paul manifested the Catholic teaching that suffering does not lessen our dignity, certainly not the suffering imposed by age. He was unashamed to embrace the helplessness that causes our "enlightened" culture to shudder. He might say (and he probably has): Be not afraid: Christ transforms suffering from an obstacle to an opportunity.

Somewhere, a fourth-grade child is writing a "current events report" about the passing of Pope John Paul II. She will have to answer the questions Who? What? When? Where? Why is it important? without really understanding the importance. Yet she will grow up, and grow old, in a world whose shallow understanding of human suffering has been challenged profoundly by Pope John Paul II.

If John Paul is an example of how Christ inspires his followers, imagine how great is Christ himself!

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