The statement was pompously worded, expressing regret about what was to follow. Alas, it said, weeping crocodile tears, it gave no pleasure to present this statement to the public, but it had to be done. Pope John Paul II, it declared, was a terrible pope and should not be called blessed.
With such an opening, I had to read on. Was some ghastly truth about to be revealed regarding a man whom so many revere as holy? No: Merely rehashing the criticisms heard over the years. Chief among these was that John Paul was too friendly to those of other faiths: He even called together people of different religions to pray for peace — in the same place, at the same time! Truly dreadful.
And there was more: He celebrated Mass with some horrible music and seemed to be unaware of liturgical aberrations that took place around him. Further, some of the bishops he appointed were not much use.
After reading the piece, I felt cheated. Was that it? Well, yes, essentially. There was some griping about various other things, but these lacked much bite. The great denouncing of John Paul turned out to be something of a damp squib.
But it did get me thinking. While John Paul was alive, I was enjoying the early years of adulthood, the first decades of married life, work as a journalist, and researching and writing several books. He was a constant, vivid presence on the world scene, and of course in the life of the Church. At every Mass, his name in the Canon was routine: “John Paul, our pope.” His face looked out, reassuring, enduring, from a picture in a Catholic hall or school, or on a small card tucked into a prayer book. He was part of the fabric of things. I met him once at a public audience, and it was exciting. But in another sense, he was simply the pope — and as such I took him for granted.
Of course, I knew — everyone knew — that it was extraordinary to have a Polish pope after all those centuries of Italian ones. But it was also perhaps a reality of the changing face of things: In the age of swift travel and easy communication, Italians no longer had the advantage of geography in a great institution based in Rome. Cardinals of many nations travelled and met and talked and wrote and worked together. It was refreshing to have a non-Italian pope, and thrilling to have one from behind the Iron Curtain. But on reflection, it was something necessary and a superb example of God’s providence.
Even the assassination attempt seemed another thrilling adventure on the world stage involving someone who was by then already a world figure. And his travels around the world soon developed a pattern that had a familiarity about them: He would kneel and kiss the ground on arrival, he addressed vast crowds, he celebrated Mass in some gigantic open-air arena, he met statesmen and blessed babies.
It was only in John Paul’s last years that I came to understand that it was all much, much deeper and more important than I had grasped. This was a man who had given himself wholly and sincerely to God’s service, who had placed himself without reserve in God’s hands and wanted to do whatever God wanted. He was not driven by the events of history, or awed by the drama of standing on the world stage. None of that mattered. At heart, things were simple: God, revealed in Jesus Christ, founded a Church and appointed Peter and his successors, who must serve faithfully and without reserve — without sparing themselves — right to the very end.
And John Paul became the spiritual leader that the whole world recognized: his sincerity all too evident, as when he begged for peace between warring nations, or when he did not hesitate to state unpopular truths or to apologize for the faults and failings that the Church had shown down the centuries. He didn’t seem to have any desire at all for a personal comfort zone of opinions or ideas: What mattered was the message of Christ. So his achievements — the collapse of Communism, the rallying of a new generation in the love and service of God and the Church, the opening of a whole new communication of age-old wisdom on sexual morality, the re-invigorating of the Church in the aftermath of a major council — came in unexpected ways, with a sort of freshness about them.
He took the Church across the threshold of a new millennium — not just marking the date but, during the years leading up to it, letting its message burn into the Church’s consciousness with a passion for repentance and renewal, for fresh evangelization and the urgency of mission.
He preached, taught, led, directed, guided, inspired, negotiated, built, initiated, and brought great projects to a fitting conclusion. John Paul gave us World Youth Day, bringing literally millions of young people together to pray, to learn about the great truths of the Christian faith, and to honor Christ in the Eucharist. He inaugurated Divine Mercy Sunday and embedded it into the Church’s calendar. He took the rosary, which had become neglected and regarded as old-fashioned, and showed us its greatness and beauty, adding new Mysteries of Light to illuminate it afresh. He was the first pope since St. Peter to visit a synagogue, and he opened a new chapter in the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. His encyclical Veritatis Splendor set out the great reality of moral truths in a world where even the concept of truth was challenged.
There just wasn’t any vanity. John Paul had a brilliant mind, as well as the humility and faith to place it alongside others in his apostolic work. He had a great capacity to love. He inspired affection and friendship, and retained it: As an old man he was still meeting and talking to the young people to whom he had ministered as a young priest, and he was on terms of deep friendship with his closest theological adviser whom he had known for 20 years, and whose words at his funeral would touch the hearts of listeners around the world.
He had great personal courage: He endured a battery of physical difficulties with serenity and never allowed them to keep him from working.
He wasn’t alone on the world stage: During his papacy there were a number of remarkable people playing substantial roles in public life. Britain had its first female prime minister. America had one of its finest presidents. Russia produced a man who would begin the process of trying to humanize Communism. Poland produced a leader of a free-trade union who became a national figure. But John Paul is somehow on a different plane from all of them.
John Paul was not just a great man but a great pope, a great successor of St. Peter, a great man of God. He died leaving virtually no personal possessions; he had always lived simply. The priority was God, prayer, and the work that was to be done as a further form of prayer, the overriding reality of love. He is with God, and can most truly be called blessed: He is surely a saint, and down all the years to come, Catholics will invoke him in prayer. Those of us who lived in his era were privileged, and we know it.