I try to follow a rule of not commenting or else saying little about topics on which I have no particular expertise or knowledge. But the apparently-imminent death of John Paul II is a historic event, unique at least in our lifetimes. So let me just share some thoughts with you.
One memory that stands out in my mind is from 1978, sitting down with my grandfather in a TV and card-playing room in the seniorsâ apartment complex where my grandparents then lived. We were sitting in front of the TV, perhaps after he or I got too bored playing gin rummy with each other, and I think I must have asked why there wasnât anything else on beside stuff about picking a new Pope. And my memory is hearing my grandfather say to me, in this almost passive sort of shrug I remember so well about him, âEhh, everything now is the Vatican â¦â
This would have been when I was nine and my grandfather was 68. And it was a seniorsâ retirement community run by the local Bânai Bârith in St. Louis. One other thing that is worth mentioning --- especially for people under thirty --- is that before John Paul II, the Pope was a much more, well â¦ parochial figure than he has been in the decades since.
The Pope didnât travel around the world. He was always an Italian. And he was far less involved in the ecumenical work that played such a role in John Paulâs pontificate. All of this goes to say that for a Jewish nine-year-old and his grandfather sitting in a rec room in a Jewish retirement home in 1978, the Pope was a much more distant figure than he would be to almost any of us today.
The day in question came when the conclave of Cardinals was meeting for the second time in little more than a month to elect a Pope --- John Paul I (Albino Luciani), remember, had died after only 33 days in office. These papal elections were getting wall-to-wall coverage on TV. And such blanket coverage was a far rarer occurence in the days before CNN and cable news than it is today when almost any drama gets the 24-7 treatment.
My recollection has no particular or greater consequence. And I mention it mainly because to me it symbolizes the fact that even as a man of 36 I have no real living memory of any Pope other than this man.
At an earlier point in my life I was much more interested in and immersed in religious and theological questions --- out of both academic and personal interest. So these are issues that I thought more about then than I do now. But thinking of John Paul II today I have a feeling of great respect and even an element of reverence but also, with all that, very mixed feelings.
On first blush, I think of all the ways he brought the Catholic Church into the modern world --- and, in this sense, I mean not so much Catholicism (Vatican II did that) but the institutional church and the papacy. I think most of his ecumenicism and the truly epochal changes he wrought in the Roman Catholic Churchâs relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people, symbolized by his visit to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986. I think of his ecumenical dialogue with Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy or his preaching at a Lutheran Church in 1983 --- an almost inconceivable event for someone steeped in the history of Early Modern Europe and the Reformation.
I think also of his ambivalent political legacy in the Third World. On the one hand he was hostile, even authoritarian in the measures he employed, toward Liberation Theology in Latin America. And yet he also made great strides in elevating that strain of Catholicism which, in the Third World especially, has always been on the side of the poor and the powerless (where it should be), and diminishing that often dominant portion which casts its lot with the wealthy and the powerful (where it has so often been).
Separate from all these individual points John Paul II has simply been a towering figure -- a perception that I imagine will grow as he recedes into history. And that is a striking thing in itself since he was a compromise candidate; and the Cardinals probably didn't have a clear sense of what they were getting into when they chose him.
Yet in recent years especially (and this isnât to say that the traditionalist dimension of John Paulâs pontificate hasnât been there from the beginning --- witness his special relationship with the deeply reactionary Opus Dei) his focus on family and sexual traditionalism has seemed to push most of this to the side, even to override it where they came into any tension, creating a papacy which viewed the whole world through the prism of a few key questions surrounding reproduction, sex and death and in some cases, in my opinion, verging or lapsing into a theological obscurantism.
I know this is a very broad brush for a very big subject. And I also recognize that there is a perspective from which these different elements of John Paulâs tenure and teaching --- even seemingly disparate or contradictory ones --- all fit together into a unified whole, a seamless cloth. So these thoughts arenât offered as anything definitive or complete; theyâre merely reflections for this day. So let me set all of that aside for the moment.
This article in the Times of London seemed a particularly rich summing-up of the Pope's transition out of life. The author captures the mix of a waiting world and also this small, passing moment in the Pope's quarters -- he and a few others presumably -- as they wait for the end.
The atmosphere of the moment also makes me think of the point Andrew Sullivan has made so eloquently in recent days with respect to the Schiavo case: that life is not an unqualified good at all times and under all circumstances. Nor is death, by extension, an unqualified evil. Indeed, in a Christian worldview it is almost unimaginable that death can be seen as such. And yet much of the commentary on Schiavo from the right seems almost to embrace that view -- leading to what Andrew -- if I remember correctly -- called not so much a respect for life as its fetishisation.
"This evening or this night," said Angelo Comastri, the vicar general for Vatican City, today, "Christ opens the door to the Pope." In the death of a man like the Pope for whom those words aren't a consolation or metaphor but life's deepest reality, what's possible for those watching and waiting is not just a tearful grief moving toward acceptance but a latent joy.
To TPM's Catholic readers let me extend a very sincere message and feeling of respect, condolence and solidarity in this moment of loss and grief and a shared hope for renewal and rebirth.