Since the Holy Father's death, I have felt somewhat reluctant to write anything. I thought that perhaps after all of this time, I would have found something really eloquent to say, but it ain't comin'. What is there to say that hasn't already been said? So I've been offering prayer for the Holy Father... and Santo Subito!, as they say in Rome these days. I miss the Holy Father. Technically, I was born in the last months of the life of Pope Paul VI, yet of course, Pope John Paul II is the only pope I remember. For 26 years, I have grown up knowing only this pope. Even prior to my becoming Catholic, I knew of him. Granted, back then, I knew very little about who he was, but he was there. And now, we are preparing for a new pope, and for me and many of my generation, that is truly a strange prospect. I'm not sure quite how to act or think about it. Don't take it for granted - the young people of today's world have a special connection to Pope John Paul II, and it's going to be interesting moving into a new era of the Church with a new Holy Father. I guess it comes down to trusting the Holy Spirit.
He had a legacy...
People are arguing about this pope's legacy. Some traditionalists argue that it echoed an exceedingly progressive agenda with regard to ecumenism and social justice, while extreme progressives argue that the pope's legacy is a legacy of ideological oppression. I know that's an oversimplification - Personally, I'm not there. I admired this pope's ecumenical efforts and his stand for social justice, and I was not scandalized by his efforts to preach peace at Assisi. Yet, people missed that message, and as a result, there was confusion. On the same line, I admire this pope's commitment to the Gospel and to the teachings of the Church. I respect his authentic vision of the Second Vatican Council, and I respect him for standing firm on issues the Church does not have the authority to change (e.g. ordination of women to the presbyterate). Yet, people missed this message too, and again, there was confusion. We can critique every thing a pope does and ascertain certain effects present to us today, but it is incredibly difficult to judge them from the context of history, especially the actions of such a prophetic pope with such extraordinary vision. Personally, in the whirlwind of secularism that has devastated so much of the world during the last 40 years (or even the last 100 years), I think we are much better off than we could have been. Yes, there are problems.
The world respects John Paul II for the various roles he played on the world scene. Among other notable things, they see his contribution to the fall of communism and his opposition to war. They see his commitment to social justice and despise his opposition to the moral and physical dangers of artificial birth control. I see those things connected to the whole of the man, the pope, that was John Paul II.
What of young adults?
I don't speak for all young adults, but I do speak for many. This pope was our hero. He loved us. He rescued us from a troubled sea with the strong message of Christ's redemption. He reached out to us and challenged us with the Gospel and, in doing so, gave us an invitation to go even deeper. He told us that with God's grace, nothing was impossible for us. He made sure we knew that we were invited to share in the very divine life of God through our active participation in the sacramental life of the church. Were it not for this pope, I would not know Jesus as I know Him today.
This pope's extraordinary connection and contribution to the young people of the world has taken root, and while we can definitely see its effects today, we will see its greatest effects in the coming years. His encyclicals as well as his theology of the body demonstrated his ability to phrase the teachings of the church in ways that we, of this generation, could understand, embrace, and carry forward. And we will carry them forward. We will be studying these writings for centuries to come because they are prophetic, and they are radical. The Holy Father showed us that living the Christian life meant living a radical life with a powerful witness, set apart from the world's standards while still a part of the world.
What do I know?
I saw the Holy Father at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. Unlike some people, I never got to shake his hand or kiss his ring, but I did get to see him up close and attend one of his papal masses. Here is one of my pictures:
I didn't need a picture to commemorate it, but I succumbed to a desire for a tangible icon to remember the experience by. My humanness, I guess. But it wasn't just the Holy Father. It was the world's pilgrims gathered together there with me, the universal church with our universal shepherd - the complete image.
In the future...
This pope set an example of Christian holiness for me. That we as young adults can walk the fine line toward embracing true Christian holiness, and therefore true freedom, without falling into or getting carried away by the ebb and flow of various ideological fringe groups, "liberal" and "conservative", at war within the modern church. This has been the most difficult part of living the Catholic faith for me because it means embracing the challenge to be devout and orthodox in my beliefs together with the challenge to live those beliefs in an outward manner, calling attention to social justice, and speaking out on behalf of those whom society oppresses. I'm not completely there yet, but I see it as a goal. It can be done without being angry or giving in to the human lure of extreme progressivist indifference or extreme traditionalist rigidity. Our pope lived in the radical center of the tension, the locus of paradox, and that is where I want to be as well. I will stumble, but please God, let that be all.
I'm going to pull this to a close, but I hope that this illustrates one thing from my point of view: John Paul II was truly great, in the many senses of the word. At least, I can say that about his role in my life, and that is what I will pass on to future generations. And it is with a profound sadness that I let him go into the mercy of God.
As we, as a church, say goodbye to our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, let us now look forward to the new man who will shepherd the universal church forward into the heights... and depths... of the third millennium.