I've spent much of the past day and a half watching coverage of the Pope's death. It's still sinking in. Karol Wojtila has defined the world in which I live more than anyone else--which is ironic, given how often he opposed what seemed to be the dominant culture of our era. I was four years old when John Paul II became Pope, and Popes weren't really on my radar screen except as mythical monsters. It took me years to overcome the prejudices I'd inherited and recognize just how saintly and wise he was. And now he is gone. We will not soon see his like. He was not perfect, and as an Episcopalian (though a relatively conservative one) I obviously differ with some of his beliefs and actions. But he taught the world what a Pope could be. The office has had its share of scoundrels, and far more mediocrities. But in John Paul the spirit of the Apostles stood up and roared. This was a man unquestionably, devotedly in love with Jesus Christ; a man fervently convinced of the existence of truth, and committed to the proposition that all truth ultimately led to one source. His outreach to other religions (criticized by conservatives) and his defense of traditional Christian sexual morality (criticized by liberals) reflected a unified Christian humanism that his critics rarely seem to have grasped. It was easier to portray him as a man of contradictions than to face the possibility that he saw what we did not. He was standing on top of the mountain while we threw stones at him from opposite valleys. For John Paul II, all goodness and truth and beauty in human culture came from Christ, and for him there was no radical discontinuity between the dignity given us in creation and the new nature restored in Christ. Christ is the goal of all creation, the lens through which every human aspiration gains its nobility. The religion of John Paul was one that set demanding standards, but had room for deep compassion with human weakness. The popular faith of our culture does exactly the opposite--it cheapens forgiveness into tolerance and then has no true forgiveness left for those who need it.
John Paul's motto, from the beginning, was "Be not afraid." I used to find this rather superficial, as if all the problems of the world could be brushed away with an exhortation to buck up. But the older I get, and the more deeply I delve into my own fears, the more I realize that this was the one truly profound thing that could be said to our cowardly age. The great sin of our era is not that we are cruel or lustful or unjust or unbelieving. We are all those things, but there's nothing new in that--people have had these vices since the beginning of recorded history. The great sin of our age is that we are afraid. In our heart of hearts, many of us do not believe that there is any life beyond this one, that there is any transcendent value worth living and dying for, that there is any truth that can satisfy our souls like bread and wine. And so we dare not risk our lives by daring to believe, to hope, to love. We fritter ourselves away in little deaths, because we fear death so much. We browse the Internet, we watch TV, we read self-help books, we eat fast food. We spend our last days in a coma (if our relatives don't starve us to death), and we die and are reduced to ashes. And we call ourselves great and enlightened and civilized.
We are a culture of death because we are a culture of fear. Far from being irrelevant, John Paul was feared and hated because his message was exactly the message we needed to hear. We said that he did not understand us, because he understood us too well. He did not accept our heroic vision of ourselves, so we said he was blinded by his archaic prejudices. But in fact, like all prophets, he saw through our false images of greatness. He saw our pitiful souls, made for holiness and contented with mediocrity--he saw us and he loved us, as his Master loves us. And we could not stand it.
May he rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon him. And by his prayers, may we obtain the grace to follow his example. May we love without fear, and hope without shame. May we never rest content with anything less than the full humanity that is ours in Christ. And may we be gathered together, with Karol Wojtila and all the faithful departed, in the presence of our Lord who bought us with his blood.