Where the World's Views of America Come into Focus
By Oommen Kuruvilla
April 18, 2005
It is not difficult to see why Pope John Paul II was a Pope with a difference -- perhaps a great deal of difference. The Pope who shepherded the Catholic Church for over a quarter century has said ciao to his flock and the world, leaving a vacuum, which is very difficult to fill.
His was a homespun, affable, people-friendly, but close-to-the bone style, which contrasts sharply with the ponderous and pompous image we usually have of the papacy.
Here was a Pope who devoted all of his energies, and indeed his whole life, for upholding moral values and defending the rights of the poor, nay, of all human beings.
Much as he was, in large measure, instrumental in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he minced no words telling off capitalists for grasping and being indifferent to the poor, and expressed several times his concern about the possible ill-effects of globalization on the poorest people.
He told U.S. President George Bush and all those who were chomping at the bit to invade Iraq not just to hold their horses, but to give up such pernicious plans altogether because it was simply immoral to "settle issues by means of war."
It's but an exquisite paradox that President Bush is now gushing in praise for the late Pope, whom he characterizes as a champion of peace and freedom. But then, the truth cannot be buried for long.
George Bush must be grateful to the Pope, for it was largely due to the efforts of John Paul II that a much-feared clash of civilizations failed to materialize after the Iraq War. The Pope's stand on the war and his steadfast, consistent support for the rights of Palestinians to have their own state, have had a great analgesic impact on the Muslim world.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Pope "a great religious figure who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all races and religions, as well as our people's right for independence."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spoke of his "long journey of giving, during which he remained a symbol of love and peace and one who called for dialogue between religions." In fact, he was the first Pope to step into a mosque and pray.
In sum, the courage of his convictions is an inspiring testimony to all that is noble and just. As a non-Catholic commented the other day, he was a Pope who knew how to "pope."
He was regarded as a people's Pope. Being an actor and playwright in his salad days, showmanship came pretty naturally to him during his papal days. He was also an athlete, footballer, mountaineer, skier, all of which gave him enough grit and strength to trot the globe extensively, covering 129 countries, a feat no other Pope has achieved.
On his tours, he would kiss the ground on deplaning, perhaps in a show of respect for the culture and civilization of the countries he was visiting. This, in fact, perfectly jibed with his idea of universal brotherhood and love, and above all, his own humility.
As a matter of fact, he morphed the bureaucracy-ridden, managerial papacy into a lively post, thrumming with a divine zeal, and showcased himself as an exemplar of humanism, simplicity and camaraderie.
He glad-handed people across all religions and races, but said to their faces what he thought was right.
I have read a story of the Pope's visit to the Philippines, a largely Catholic country, during the time of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The dictator got such a harsh rebuke during his talks with the Pope that he stormed out of the room in a huff. Whether the story is true or a figment of someone's imagination, the fact remains that the Pope had been keen on hitting the nail on the head, irrespective of whose head it was.
He also knew how to leaven boring situations with humorous quips.
It was reported the other day that in New York when Mayor Ed Koch greeted him with "Your Holiness, I am the mayor," the Pope replied: "I shall try to be a good citizen."
Born as Karol Josef Wojtyla in Poland, John Paul II grew up in difficult circumstances under the Nazi occupation and later lived under communist rule. He was considered an ordinary, but conscientious person. In fact, the Polish communist authorities were mighty pleased when they heard the news that he was made archbishop of Krakow because his mentor, fierce anti-communist Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, was a thorn in their side. They thought Wojtyla would be more compliant, less politically astute.
Little did they know that Wojtyla, as Pope, would lead to their doom, and which would cascade across the entire swathe of Eastern European communism.
When he first visited Poland after becoming Pope in 1979, he told the people "not to be afraid." With millions of people flocking to stadiums and churches to see a Pope from their own country, the communist authorities in both Warsaw and Moscow could do little, because the world spotlight was on the Pope. Soldiers drew back to their barracks and it was the volunteers who manned the situation, including security.
Lech Walesa, former Polish president and leader of the Solidarity movement, articulated the thoughts of Poles' after their countryman was elevated to the Papal throne: "If a Pole could become a Pope, then nothing is impossible."
Solidarity trade union leader Janusz Onyszkiewicz says: "The Pope's election brought a tremendous sense of being together." According to him, the 1979 visit of the Pope was a "dress rehearsal" for the Solidarity movement.
Many historians now credit the Pope with initiating a chain of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. There were, no doubt, other leaders, such as former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped tear down the iron curtain. But the Pope was indeed a catalyst who triggered the birth of a great movement, Solidarity, and inspired it every step of the way until the goal was achieved. Ultimately, Gorbachev thought it better to let the Soviet edifice crumble peacefully. Gorbachev's tribute to the Pope: "He was the number one humanist on the planet."
The question now being asked is, what is the relevance of the late Pope's 26-year reign? To put it more bluntly, wasn't Pope John Paul II a hindrance to modern living? Others ask whether the Pope was a revolutionary or conservative. The fact is that he was both, rolled into one. He was a revolutionary just as his Lord Jesus Christ was. The Pope was, without doubt, all things to all people, but he was very concerned about the plight of the poor. His travels, mass contacts, his habit of calling a spade a spade, and above all, his simple, easy to understand style, point to a revolutionary streak in his character.
He was, without argument, a conservative when it came to the question of values. The world now wants a liberal, or rather, libertine approach, toward all things moral. It wants a dumbed-down code of morality. The highly debated issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, divorce, gay and lesbian marriage, contraception and a whole host of anti-life practices had no place in the Pope's moral practice.
In fact, phrases like "culture of life" and "culture of death," that President Bush likes to utter, were in fact coined by the Pope in his 1995 encyclical, Evangeliun Vitae, or Gospel of Life. The late Pope was dead set against abortion or even the idea of killing embryos for research. The reason he was so concerned about the plight of the poor was not so much that poverty is conflated with terrorism, as his respect for the dignity of human life.
Some among the faithful who see him as an incorrigible conservative should know one thing. There are some fundamental principles or tenets of the Church, which any Pope must defend and teach others to follow. If you were allowed to bypass those values and verities, then the very foundation of religion would erode.
However, there are several issues such as the ordination of women, the idea of married priests, contraception that does not harm the embryo, or decentralization, which the Pope can allow. But first, the Holy See has to study the likely effects of such changes on the spiritual lives of the people of the Church. Viewed from this angle, it may be safe to assume that at least some Catholic critics would like to weaken papal authority.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the late Pope's character was his readiness to seek forgiveness for the Church's mistakes. He begged forgiveness from the Jews -- he was the first Pope to visit a synagogue -- and Orthodox Christians. He apologized for the Crusades and Inquisitions, and the persecution of Galileo in the 17th century. He even forgave and reconciled with a gunman who tried to assassinate him. Here was a Pope who was ready to acknowledge the Church's faults and build bridges with all religions and people, around the globe, to go forward in a spirit of unity, love and peace.
The last stages of his life when he was visibly weak and in pain while in the flesh were yet another example of how his flock should deal with suffering. He was quite serene even while he was slipping away to the Pearly Gates, we were told by his aides. This was because of his conviction and hope for a blissful afterlife. An author said that he heard the Pope speak that "… there is no shipwreck without hope, no darkness without dawn and no storm without heaven," to which one may add, there is no resurrection without death.
ssing The Threshold Of Hope. He has indeed crossed that threshold, and must now be enjoying his tryst with divine destiny.