I was in my study in Manchester, Massachusetts. It was 10:30 on Saturday morning, April 2, 2005. I, like the rest of you, checked the television (I use Fox) as soon as I had gotten up earlier that morning. The Holy Father was still in extremis—still bound in this mortal coil, and none of us knew when God would say to him the gracious “Now!”
The TV anchormen and women heroically kept up their running commentaries and endless interviews with everyone in and out of the Vatican whom they could round up over those last couple of days. There were a few moments on Friday when the word got out that he had died—quickly corrected and reversed. No: He was still with us, and they had not closed the shutters on the windows of his apartment up there above St. Peter’s Square. The TV people would have been more than human if they had not found the thought, “Well—when is he going to die?” flitting through their heads during that long vigil.
Was it grotesque to embark on encomia then—before the pontiff had died? I don’t think so. Now, not being a great “figure” in contemporary Catholicism—neither a prelate, nor a theologian, nor a pundit, nor an author of any special note—I can only reflect as a common lay- man on what this pontificate has meant to me.
I was an Anglican when John Paul II was elected to the See of Peter. In God’s good providence, I was not long thereafter (at the Easter Vigil of 1985) received into the ancient Church. But even before being received into full communion with the Church, I had been sharply aware that we—all of us Christians—had been vouchsafed a very great gift from the Most High. A great and good and wise shepherd who had had long experience in leading his flock through the rockiest and most perilous terrain: the Poland of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, not to mention that elusive historical phenomenon, “the modern world.” What was the ensign fluttering from that crosier of his?
Holiness. Intrepidity. Valor. Fidelity. Brilliance. Tenderness. Perspicacity. A fathomlessly rich humanness. Suffering. (You can’t be Polish, it seems to me, a Saxon, and not know more than most of the rest of us all about suffering.) And a glorious, unapologetic, articulate, undiluted orthodoxy. This, I think, was what gave me the greatest hope when we found this man presently sitting in the sede in Rome.
The encyclicals began to appear. As the new boy in town, I was under the illusion (sadly mistaken, I soon discovered) that Roman Catholics snapped up papal encyclicals and read them with great zest. Alas. Even my priestly colleagues on the faculty of one of America’s major theological seminaries looked at me with sad incredulity when I would rush into the hallway after having read (and underlined, and filled the margins of) the latest encyclical or pastoral letter or motu proprio. “Heys Get a load of this!,” I would gasp. Patient shaking of venerable sacerdotal heads.
Nevertheless, I read them. Redemptor Hominis; Dives in Misericordia ; Dominum et Vivificantem; Redemptoris Mater; Veritatis Splendor. Oh, laudate et superexaltate Eum in saecula! Evangelium Vitae. Fides et Ratio. Those were the ones that brought particular joy to this new Catholic.
My wife and daughter and I met him once, upstairs in that parlor where he would greet small groups of guests. By that time he was bent over, clearly in terrible pain. His face sagged, and he could only groan his greetings. Perhaps that was his greatest gift to us: He showed us how to suffer.