The universal significance of John Paul II

Saturday, April 9, 2005

In his final lucid hours the pope was said to be aware that there were a great many young people in the crowds outside the papal residence. According to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, he sent them this message: “All my life I have searched for you. Now you have come to me. And for that I thank you.” (The Mail, [London tabloid], 4/3/05)

It is not clear whether he actually spoke or wrote those words—-translated somewhat differently in other papers—-but in any case, they beautifully sum up the special passion for young people that characterized this papacy. No other pope had thought to institute a World Youth Day to attract, inspire and celebrate young Catholics around the globe.

John Paul’s special genius for communicating the care of Christ for the lowly

A reporter wrote from Rome: “Immigrants from the developing world repeatedly praised the pope for leaving the comforts of the Vatican and visiting their homelands. ‘We have a special way of feeling things, and visits are very important to Africans,’ said Jacques Lutaladio, at the Congolese church in Rome. ‘I mean if the priest visits your home, you brag about it for days. And the pope, now that was really important.’” (The New York Times 4/4/05)

“Our country has always been Catholic, but this is the first pope to visit our country with all its troubles,” said Germania Betancourt, an Ecuadorian. “The church seems so much closer and more human now.” (The New York Times 4/4/05)

At the Consolata Shrine in Nairobi, Ernestina Owiti said, “I feel such a deep loss. He was my father. He cared for the downtrodden. He fought for the good of humanity, no matter who they were.” (NY Times, 4/4/05)

Various Irish reporters observed that Ireland in 1979, at the time of the pope’s historic visit, was at a very low ebb. Ireland thought of itself in those days as similar to John Paul’s homeland of Poland, a small country which had been dominated by oppressive powers, neglected by the wider world, surviving a painful history on the strength of Catholic faith. Therefore the pope’s tumultuously successful visit became for Ireland an occasion of coming out before the world. “The pope came on stage and a nation screamed out centuries of pent-up frustration. We finally mattered. (Sean O’Driscoll, The Irish Voice (4/6-12/05), emphasis added)

“It was his message to the third world that was truly inspiring. He was the first to pay attention to the teeming billions living desperately in Africa and South America. He spoke for them, forced leaders to take cognizance of them and set about creating a more equal world…John Paul II will be long remembered for a host of achievements but perhaps [most important] he was a modest man who never lost his sense of human identity despite all the trappings and legends around him.” (Editorial, The Irish Voice, 4/6-12/05)

John Paul’s impact on Jews and Muslims

Pawel Fijalek, a native of Wadowice, the pope’s home town in Poland, recalled that the pope’s favorite boyhood treat, kremowki (cream cakes), were sold in the town by a Polish Jew named Chaim Balamuth. When John Paul became pope, he recalled this and noted the fact that Mr. Balamuth had probably vanished in the Holocaust. Mr. Fijalek said, “It is because of him [the pope] that many Poles now know that anti-Semitism is a sin.” (NY Times 4/4/05)

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said, “even when our religious traditions led us to different conclusions [on issues such as reproductive rights and gender equality], John Paul II always found new opportunities for re-engaging in our common purpose of bringing justice with mercy into the human community.” (The New York Times 4/4/05)

At the same time, remarkably, Arabs and other Muslims claimed him too. King Abdullah II of Jordan stated that the pope’s public positions were often in line with Islamic values. “As a moral figure, he gave notable legitimacy to central Arab causes,” said Daoud Kuttab, a media critic and researcher in Jerusalem. “The moral position of someone like the pope is very important to the region.” And Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, the leader of the Islamic Center of America in Detroit (the largest mosque in the US), stated, “We Muslims also feel we lost a great friend and supporter in
the Vatican”
(The New York Times 4/4/05)

The former Prime Minister of Ireland, now EU ambassador to the US, recalled meeting the pope: “I was struck by his deep interest in and knowledge about the Muslim world, and by his wish to reach out to peoples of other faiths.” (The Irish Echo, 4/6-12/05)

An eschatological affirmation, with humor: a papal anecdote

When a crowd at his summer residence Castel Gandolfo shouted “Long live the Pope! Long live the Pope!” he shouted back, “Long live everyone!” Like Jesus he could distill complex ideas into simple messages that transformed anyone who took their message to heart.
—Garry O’Connor, author of the biography Universal Father: A Life of John Paul II, writing in The Mail (London), 4/3/05

A few selections

John Paul II in Boston, October 1979
“Freedom can never be construed without relation to the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ.”
In Chicago
In coming here I want to show my respect—-beyond the limit of the Catholic faith, even beyond all religion—-for man, for the humanity that is in every human being. The Christ, whom I unworthily represent, taught me to do this. I must obey his command of fraternal love, and I do it with great joy.”
On torture in Argentina
In October 1979, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report with documented charges against the Argentinian junta. Newspapers were commanded by the junta to suppress this news. However, the Pope just happened to be in town. At a mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Square in Buenos Aires, he called on Argentina [and Chile] to open up their records. An industrialist told the New York Times reporter, Juan de Onis, that he had favored the military and had been skeptical about reports of killings and torture of prisoners until he heard the Pope. He said that the words of the pontiff “really brought the problem home to me.“ (The New York Times 11/1/79)

John Paul II’s historic visit to Ireland in 1979, the first papal visit

In Phoenix Park, Dublin, a million and a quarter souls—-the largest crowd ever to gather in Ireland before or since—-waited and waited, searching the skies, for the papal plane to appear and deliver the Holy Father for the first papal Mass ever in Ireland. “The sense of anticipation in that crowd,” wrote Ray O’Hanlon in The Irish Echo, “was quite extraordinary.
‘Electric’ didn’t do it justice. It was bordering on atomic.”

Some negatives
From Father Andrew Greeley
“An attempt to restore the power and credibility of the central church must be judged
finally by whether or not it worked. It is hard not to conclude that the pope’s project was unsuccessful. Surveys in many Catholic countries suggest his campaign against chaos may have increase the amount of chaos…In attempting to restore the church’s credibility as a teacher, he may have eroded it further. In his endeavor to use the authority of his office to unify the church, he left it badly polarized. (Andrew Greeley in Financial Times, 4/6/05)

and from The Irish Voice
In the midst of the rapturous reporting from Ireland, there was no lack of sober assessment of failures. An editorial in The Irish Voice (4/6-12/05) said that “some of his appointments were abysmal,” and in particular that Desmond Cardinal Connell [who will vote in the conclave] was “perhaps the worst choice in recent memory to become Archbishop of Dublin…he saw no evil in the rampant sex scandals that plagued his reign and he gave every impression of being disengaged and on some lofty philosophical plane rather than down in the trenches…”

Many other Irish voices lamented the pope’s unyielding views
on contraception, celibacy, homosexuality. But no less a celebrity than Bono offered a somewhat different perspective:

What Bono said

The U2 frontman, currently on the road with his band’s “Vertigo” tour, reflected on his meeting with the pope at Castel Gandolfo in 2000. “[John Paul II was] the best front man the Catholic Church ever had. A great communicator of ideas even if you didn’t agree with all of them, a great friend to the world’s poor which is how I got to meet him. We never would have gotten the debts of 23 [poor] countries completely cancelled without him.”

“He was unwilling to embrace contraception as a necessity…for the life of the poor in Africa and other places he worked so very hard to help. I knew his convictions were very real, and I’ve learned to respect conservative positions I don’t
” (Irish Voice, April 6-12, 2005)

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