As our beloved Pope’s life ebbed away last weekend, a young American woman stood outside the papal apartments. “Look at how he has touched us all,” she said. “Who else could do that?” Who indeed? This was a pope who, from the first moments of his pontificate – as he walked out onto the balcony of St Peter’s and addressed a crowd that had never even heard of him – directed his words not only to Catholics but to every member of the human race.
Those who lit candles and offered prayers this week instinctively grasped John Paul II in a way that Western secularists did not. The European intelligentsia presented him as an inflexible moralist who sought to return the continent to the Dark Ages. Their perception of the Pope was so narrow, and their acquaintance with his teachings so risibly inadequate, that a simple point escaped them. The man who refused to conform to their values was not a reactionary but, on the contrary, one of the true radicals of the modern age.
While the Western elite pronounced on poverty and injustice from gleaming skyscrapers, John Paul II went among the wretched of the earth. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of Calcutta, he met and listened to the poor, and then raised his voice powerfully on their behalf. His travels transformed the moribund image of the papacy: the pope was no longer a monarch cloistered away in a tiny citystate, but a Vicar of Christ who, in faithful imitation of his Master, was willing to endure physical agony in order to bring light to the dark places of the earth.
It was this restless spirit that drove an already crippled and pain-racked Pope to prepare the Church for the new millennium with the excitement of a child counting off the days until Christmas. He saw, before anyone else, that the year 2000 presented an unrepeatable opportunity to reflect on two millennia of Christian history, and to set the course of the Barque of Peter for the next century.
His apology (against the advice of senior cardinals) for the sins of Catholics through the ages was an astounding act that wiped the sneer off the faces of his critics. His pilgrimage to the Holy Land reminded the world of the potential of Christianity to defuse animosity between Muslims and Jews – not an easy or fashionable point to make, but one that needed making. John Paul understood that universal brotherhood was essential for the future of the human race. Of course, every world leader advances a version of this thesis, usually in lazy rhetoric. The Pope, in contrast, used his philosophical training to develop a vision of the inviolable dignity of every human being that was not only compatible with the Magisterium of the Church, but also flowed naturally from it. No pontiff in history has accomplished such an immense intellectual task – and found time to visit 129 countries while he was doing it.
People are talking this week about his long papacy: the real wonder is that he managed to pack so many achievements into only 26 years. And now we must make sense of his death. Fortunately, he has made the task easier for us. Throughout his life, Karol Wojtyla was unusually sensitive to the meaning of dates. He would immediately have spotted the significance of the fact that he died on the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy. This feast, which he himself instituted in 2000, celebrates the merciful gaze with which God views every human being. John Paul once said that the message of Divine Mercy “forms the image of my pontificate”.
Those who poured into St Peter’s Square understood that the God whom he preached was not a finger-wagging martinet but a merciful Father waiting to restore his sons and daughters to their lost dignity. With this dual emphasis on God’s mercy and on human dignity John Paul II laid a foundation for the renewal of the Church and the world. As we get used to life without him – and it may take longer than we anticipate – we must imitate his trust in the Lord and draw comfort from the words that became the leitmotifof his pontificate: “Be not afraid!” Holy Father, rest in peace.