A prodigious, irreplaceable figure has passed from this world into the arms of the Lord Jesus Christ whom he served with such passionate devotion. In my massive file of clippings about this Pope (some admiring, some critical), the articles that stand out most for me are the sections of The New York Times describing his historic two-day visit to New York City in 1979. I do not recall any event of my thirty-five years in New York (with the obvious exception of 9/11), not even the Mets World Series victory of 1969, taking up so much space in what was then called the Gray Lady. “The Pope-Struck Press,” quipped a headline in Newsweek, a magazine itself fully engaged by the phenomenon. On Wednesday, October 3, a photo of John Paul—the epitome of health and energy—-covered the entire front page of the Times above the fold, all six columns-—the first time in the 128-year history of the newspaper. It was widely noted by amazed reporters and columnists that no other figure on earth could have mesmerized the world-capital city so completely. Radio station WOR placed a full-page ad with a photo of a radiant John Paul and the title, “A City Needs a Soul.”
Sounding what would become his characteristic note of confidence in his role as the servant-leader of Christ for the whole world, he declared to the UN General Assembly, “I wish above all to send my greetings to all the men and women living on this planet.” That was in the morning. At nightfall, celebrating mass for 80,000 at Yankee Stadium after a whirlwind day of non-stop appearances, his voice was “still deep and strong.” James Reston mused on the op-ed page that the reception was especially remarkable in view of the fact that “he has been saying some things many people do not want to hear.” His message has been clear, Reston wrote: “It is a rebuke to the divisions within the human family, to the selfishness of individuals and factions, to the excessive diversion of money from human suffering into military arms and, particularly, to the drift into materialism in the Western world, especially among the young…He is arguing for reconciliation rather than confrontation between the nuclear powers; for a sense of pity toward the hungry of the world, and for freedom of thought and religion in all nations.” It was 1979. The collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, in which he would play such a signal role, was underway. As Reston was to write two years later, “In Poland, as Tolstoy tried to tell the Russians, ‘Faith is the force of life.’ It baffles and terrifies the Soviet Union more than all the divisions and missiles in the West, and it now rests in the hands of the Vicar of Rome.” (NY Times 3/29/81)
To America he gave a message specifically couched in terms of admiration for our traditions of “spiritual generosity, industry, simplicity and sacrifice,” but went on to warn that “we cannot stand idly by, enjoying our riches and freedom if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our doors.”
In 1995 I had an opportunity to talk with Tad Szulc, who had just published a biography of John Paul II. I asked him what he thought would be remembered as this Pope’s most important contributions. Szulc named four things (in addition to the most obvious, the hastening of the fall of the Iron Curtain):
1. His “absolute dedication” to universal human dignity, social justice, and religious liberty.
2. His fascination with and encouragement of science, especially astrophysics.
3. His determination to redress ancient wrongs perpetrated by the Church, notably the Inquisition, the condemnation of Galileo, and complicity in the Holocaust.
4. His “unprecedented” efforts to seek rapprochement with the Jews. Szulc described a service of commemoration in the Vatican, where the Kaddish was chanted and grandchild of a survivor lit a menorah, as “one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.” He also described “his extraordinary emphasis on the human aspect,” evidenced by his personal reception of 100 survivors of the Holocaust.
A Roman Catholic nun interviewed on CNN cited another striking innovation of John Paul’s. No other Pope in history, she said, had thought to reach out to young people in a special way. The global youth meetings that John Paul initiated have undoubtedly had a major impact on thousands of young men and women.
And one more thing: he was one of the first well-known figures in the Church to identify a phenomenon that is now widely recognized. Back in the days when we were still using the term “third world,” he was speaking of the global South. The New York Times reported from the Pope’s visit to Edmonton, Alberta in 1984; taking Matthew 25 as his text, he declared, “his voice rising until it became almost a shout, ‘In the light of Christ’s words, the poor South will judge the rich North.'”
His appeal to Protestant evangelicals
This has been widely noted in recent years, but was already being described even as far back as that first US visit in 1979. He manifested “a repeated tendency to balance sensitivity for the poor with an evangelistic need to ground all social action firmly in a commitment to Christ” (Kenneth Briggs in The New York Times 10/3/79). It has been this never-failing balance between the “Protestant” call to a personal relationship with Jesus and the “Catholic” emphasis on social issues that has contributed to making him a uniquely beloved figure in spite of his manifest blind spots (ordination of women, declining vocations, sexual abuse by clergy in particular).