In the end, it was a beautiful death. Surrounded by those who knew and loved him, within earshot of the cheering thousands who came to be near his broken body, John Paul the Great passed into eternal life.
With his prolonged suffering and dying, he offered a final homily—one that even the mainstream media could not ignore. It said this: Every human life has inherent dignity; every human life is precious; and even death should be embraced and experienced without shame.
How different that is from what our own culture tells us. We kill our young, starve our disabled, and hide away our elderly so we’re not confronted with a forward glimpse of our own mortality. Our world fears death, as it distrusts those who do not. And so it’s no wonder that the secular mind never really understood John Paul II.
We’re told he was a great political warrior who overthrew Communism and urged peace in the world. That’s true, as far as it goes. But he was no politician; he was no social worker or starry-eyed dreamer. Everything the pope did came out of his faith in Christ and his trust that love will always defeat death.
And this, for many, seems a contradiction. Indeed, much of John Paul II’s life appears inconsistent to the secular West. He was a celibate priest who wrote much on the glories of marriage; he advocated religious freedom while “stifling debate” in his own Church; he was “progressive” on social issues and “conservative” on moral matters; a brilliant philosopher/writer/poet who tried to shut down intellectual inquiry.
Contradictions, the critics say. But therein lies the key to understanding this man, for the person of John Paul II is a kind of mirror for the rest of us. The way we see the Holy Father tells us far more about ourselves than it does about him. For this great and holy pope was remarkable not for his ability to balance opposing forces in his personality, but for his thoroughgoing consistency. He believed—as the Catholic Church has always taught—that all human life has dignity and that that dignity must be reflected in our relations with God, ourselves, and each other.
His writings, his theological positions, his political activism—all of it emerged from this fundamental belief. That so many of us find contradiction in him shows us how far we have fallen. Virtue looks like foolishness to the sinful man, and wisdom appears naïve.
Not so with John Paul II. He recognized the cruelty of the human heart and the ravenous hunger of souls without God. But he knew the other side as well. In the wretchedness of the 20th century, he saw the beauty shining through—the remnants of a world created and deemed good. Humanity’s fall has corrupted much, but despite our best efforts, we cannot erase God’s fingerprints on us.
This is reality. This is what we would see if the glass were not so dark. John Paul II saw it, and that’s why he traveled and spoke and wrote and prayed so very much. Through his eyes, he let us glimpse the world that exists just behind the veil. Many of us saw it too, if only for a moment. And what we beheld—what we beheld through him—was beautiful.