Ruminations about John Paul II

Monday, April 4, 2005

The Incarnation and the Resurrection reflected in one luminous death

As the pope lay on his deathbed, Camillo Cardinal Ruini said, “He is already with our Lord and Saviour. He already sees and touches the Lord.” British reporter Laura Collins, in a thoughtful news account, observed, “Such majestic rhetoric sat strangely alongside the detailed [medical] bulletins [about urinary tract infections, failing organ systems, and septic shock],” but, she continued, these “brutally clinical [reports] were issued in line with the Pope’s wishes. The clarity was in contrast to the secrecy and confusion following the sudden death of his predecessor, John Paul I, which led to rumours that he had been poisoned. Bishop John Flack, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See in Rome, said that the frank nature of the bulletins was because the pope wanted to show that death was not something to fear. “He is not frightened of death,” added Bishop Flack. “A lifetime of prayer and study of the Bible all contribute to his serenity and peace.”

Ms. Collins added that it was no longer an oddity to hear a Protestant talking so emotionally about the pope, because “he had reached out to all humanity in his mission of peace and love.” [Laura Collins, writing from St. Peter”s Square in Rome, The Mail (London), 4/3/05)

An additional thought about that “strange” juxtaposition of clinical detail and transcendent interpretation:

The fact that such bulletins were issued simultaneously exemplifies not only a characteristic Judeo-Christian frankness about bodily life—for better and worse—but also the material, incarnational nature of Christian faith. The Christian disciple does not seek to escape from physical facts but affirms that God has embraced the physical facts, indeed has inhabited them (the Word became flesh), and that therefore we may at any time behold the reality of God precisely in the midst of the least “spiritual,” most unattractive mundane phenomena.

All the articles about the pope’s impact in the first fifteen years of his papacy have mentioned his intensely physical presence. That was when his relative youth and health permitted him full range of his powers. It was that physical charisma that electrified people from every walk of life during the period when he was still able to kneel and kiss the ground at every airport, swing babies and children into the air, make eye contact with hundreds in crowds of tens of thousands. The final ten years were the obverse. It was remarkable that a man who had taken so much delight in his physical prowess was determined to let us see his deterioration. There was great humility in that, a willingness to be used by God to the last breath of his earthly life. As many have said, the pope’s very public decline and death have instructed and enriched us all—-not only, however, in the sense of setting an example, but also by embodying Christian trust in God’s limitless pity and love for our frail human flesh. From this body of death (Romans 7:24) we will be raised to life eternal by the power of Christ’s resurrection.

Roman Catholic dilemmas, Anglican dilemmas

As the Roman Catholic Church begins the process of electing a new pope, it is striking how much their problems and challenges are mirrored in the Anglican Communion. Analysts are noting that the cardinal-electors must make some very difficult decisions in their voting. Should they favor a European who can speak effectively and personally to the rich, capitalist, liberal and secular global North where the influence of the Church is steadily weakening? Or should they choose someone from the global South who will represent the numerical superiority and steady growth of Catholicism there (and the corresponding proliferation of competing Pentecostalism, which worries the Church of Rome a great deal)?

These competing claims sounds a lot like the problems facing the Anglican Communion, which is markedly losing vitality in its Northern strongholds but exploding in Africa. A second similarity is that all the mainline denominations in the US must now face steep competition from the more openly evangelical churches, in a manner similar to that confronting the Roman Catholics—-particularly in Latin America—-by Pentecostalism.

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