The Spiritual Legacy of John Paul II
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 24, 2005
Amid the discord God strikes
At a bell immense,
For a Slavic Pope.
He opened the throne of Peter at last.
Beloved, a Slavic Pope is coming,
A brother of the people.
It would take nearly a century and a half for Slowacki’s prophecy to come true. But in the long history of the Catholic Church, 140 or 150 years isn’t really too long… (Or, as Thomas Groome, professor of theology at Boston College said to despondent progressive Catholics after the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy this past week: “Benedict is the 264th pope. But we mustn’t forget that there will also be a 265th pope, and a 266th, and a 267th…”)
Nevertheless, Karol Wojtyla—John Paul II—stood tall in the line of the 263 men who, tradition tells us, had served as successor to St. Peter. His tenure, certainly, was one of the longest—the third longest if one accepts the more than half a century ascribed to St. Peter; second only to the 32 years of Pius IX since the time of more recent history. He was the only Polish (indeed, the only Slavic) pope in history; the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
He was a titan of our times, as well. One biographer called him “the man of the century”. “He was a stunningly successful historical actor,” another observer has written. “He elevated the importance of the papacy’s bully pulpit to an all-time high, and as such stood on the world stage alongside Reagan, Thatcher, Blair, Clinton, the Bushes, and Chirac—and in many ways, towered over them all.”
He was certainly a world celebrity—perhaps the most photographed celebrity of all; some have noted that more people probably saw John Paul II in person than any other mortal in the history of the world. His visits to more than 125 countries attracted millions. He knew how to use television. He wrote books, put out compact discs, and even won a Grammy award. His massive youth rallies felt like rock concerts, and in many ways, especially in his younger, healthier years, he had the aura of a superstar. “He challenged secular culture on its own turf,” one observer has written. “Often enough, he prevailed.”
But in many ways, too, he was a man of paradoxes:
He was a world celebrity. But when he died he owned virtually no possessions, and had no wealth whatsoever.
He had the aura of a superstar. But through the final decade or more of his papacy, his physical decay unfolded before the eyes of the world, as he struggled to walk, slurred his speech, and his facial expression became more and more frozen.
History hails him as the “liberator of Eastern Europe”—as one of the dominant forces in the downfall of Communism. But within his own church, he enforced a severe discipline, which tolerated little opposition.
He spread his faith far and wide. Yet, he was often, both as archbishop and as pope, a disinterested administrator, who left much of the daily running of the church in the hands of various Vatican offices and bureaucrats.
He was a complex man—a full human being, as we all are—with his fair share of strengths and weaknesses, glories and follies. He was, as James Carroll points out, but the latest embodiment of the Church’s humanness. “He was a man,” Carroll writes, “in whom we could glimpse the elegant range of the human condition, including its paradoxes, mysteries, and infuriating disappointments. This pope, for all of his greatness, was one of us,” Carroll says. And for that reason, so many millions of men and women loved him.
But why, you may ask, should we even care. He was not our pope, after all. We may have found him an inspiring-- or infuriating-- or both at the same time-- public figure; but what real significance did the teachings and the life of John Paul II have to us, as non-Catholics, as non-Christians (many of us), and most unorthodox Christians (some of us)?
There is, of course, the historical context. John Paul II was one of the great figures of our century. So, it seems right, now that he is gone, to consider the import of his life.
But other important men and women have died, yet we did not take a Sunday to consider their significance. When former President Ronald Reagan, another important man of our times, died not to long ago, there was no sermon on “The Spiritual Legacy of Ronald Reagan” (though you probably can imagine in which direction that sermon, from this pulpit, would have moved). Why are we even talking about this Catholic pope this morning?
The operative word here, I think, is spiritual. It is John Paul II’s spiritual legacy we are considering—not just to Catholics, or to the people of his native land, or even to Christians—but to our entire world. We might be interested in the direction in which John Paul II moved the Roman Catholic Church—how he implemented (or failed to implement, or even contravened) the main teachings of Vatican II. But that is not really a matter which concerns us.
We may be infuriated (or even feel morally superior) because of his teachings on the ordination of women. But that is a done deal for us, in our household of faith. As the first denomination in America to ordain women, it hasn’t been an issue for us since before the Civil War, and we now have a ministry that is 52% women—and we know that it is a stronger ministry because of it.
We may agree or disagree with many of the things that John Paul II taught and believed—but that makes little difference to how we practice (or don’t practice) our particular faith.
But there are things about John Paul II which do matter. And these, it seems to me, are his true testament—to the entire world.
The greatest spiritual legacy of John Paul II was his distinct and fully developed humanity—and that was why his death affected so many of us so deeply, whether Catholic or not. “Beloved, a Slavic pope is coming,” Slowacki wrote, “a brother of the people”.
Indeed, there was with John Paul II a deep sense that he was our brother—then our father—then, as time passed, our grandfather. As he aged before our eyes, we saw reflected the stages of our own human journey upon this Earth: from a youthful exuberance through years of maturation and finally illness, till at last the final letting go of death. To a world that has made an idol out of youth and beauty, this aging pope was a strong counter-witness, and a reminder of our own human frailty, and the transience of these physical bodies. “He was never more beautiful,” said Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community which ministers to the disabled, “than when he bore his sufferings openly in the face of the whole world.”
He was bowed, but never beaten. Tired, but not despairing. When his old and infirm body could no longer be a fitting vessel for his tireless spirit, death came with its stillness, and ushered Karol Wojtyla home at last. What then remained was the afterglow—that which abides when this body is taken. That is the legacy which we ponder now. Seldom has a human legacy been as rich and vital as that of this good and great pope—and it was so rich, and his legacy was so great—because he was not afraid to let his humanity shine through.
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch…” So wrote Kipling. But John Paul II went even further: he was able to talk with kings (and presidents and premiers and prime ministers), yet, even before them, keep his virtue. He was also able to talk with crowds, yet let them know that he delighted in their presence as much as they did in his. He loved people, and being with people (especially the young, it is said). Those who came in contact with him sensed his warmth—and loved him in return.
He took the time to care about others. He paid attention. He was a deep and earnest listener (a cherish quality in anyone, but especially in a public person). He had a keen mind, and would remember the ties by which he was bound to others—even to those who had only the most passing import upon his life.
For example, in 1992, a group of American priests from New York traveled to Rome, and were part of a general audience with the Pope. As the Pope made his way down the receiving line, an accompanying priest would whisper the name of each man the pontiff was greeting, and where he was from. When Father Wallace Harris of Harlem was introduced, the Pope asked which parish he was from. When Harris told him St. Charles Borromeo, the Pope spoke of his own visit there in 1979—12 years before. Then, John Paul II leaned in and asked Harris, “What did you do with those three abandoned buildings next door?” Harris told him that they had been torn down, and low cost housing had been built in their place. “And what about that big rundown building across the street from the church? What did you do with that?” Harris said that is was now housing for the elderly, renamed the John Paul II Center. The pope smiled, nodded, muttered, “Good, good,” and moved on.
Even though he was pope, he knew that his first calling was as a human being. And he took, first of all, the time to exercise human caring.
John Paul II also understood that being human meant being engaged in the world. Sometimes, it meant standing up to the powers and principalities that oppress and exploit others. Karol Wojtyla knew that the Christian’s responsibility was not just to go along with the dominant culture, but sometimes to be counter-cultural, and to make the difficult decision to oppose those in authority and power.
As a young man in Poland under Nazi occupation, he went into hiding, joined the underground, and secretly studied to become a priest. He was hunted by Nazi officials, there was a price on his head, but he persevered. After the war, when the Communists took over Poland, Wojtyla, first as a parish priest, then as a seminary professor, finally as archbishop of Krakow, spoke his truth directly and fearlessly, right under the eyes of his country’s Communist masters. When he became Pope in 1979, John Paul II inspired the still-weak Solidarity movement, and his constant admonishments to “Be not afraid.” found root in the hearts of Walesa and his comrades. Within a decade, through general strikes and martial law and murder and intrigue, Poland—and then all of eastern and central Europe-- would be free.
But it wasn’t just the terrors of Communism which concerned John Paul II. He was no friend of robber baron capitalism, either—and his words challenge us to take a hard and fast look at the dehumanizing and devastating effects of our own economic system as well. “Materialistic concerns and one-sided values are never sufficient to fill the heart and mind of a human person,” the pope told a group of students in 1979. “A life reduced to the sole dimension of possessions, of consumer goods, of temporal concerns, will never let you enjoy the full richness of your humanity.”
“Look,” the pope once told an Italian historian, “I can surely say by now that I’ve got the antibodies to Communism deep inside me. But,” he added, “when I think of consumer society, with all of its tragedies, I wonder sometimes which of the two systems is really better.”
It was toward finding that truly “more excellent way” that John Paul’s legacy points us.
There can no doubt whatsoever about the depth and constancy of John Paul II’s personal piety and spirituality. Whatever his engagement in the work of the world—and however we might personally apprehend the particular views he took on worldly issues—I think there is little doubt that he was, primarily, a holy man, a man of God.
He was a man of prayer, and numerous observers have remarked in the weeks since he died of how often they would see John Paul bent over or sitting quietly in prayer—fingering a rosary as he sat waiting for a mass to begin; in deep prayer at his seat on an airplane or in a car, on his way to this or that engagement. “When he wasn’t speaking, he was praying,” one person close to him has said.
No pope has spent more time in the public eye, one observer has said. And no pope has spent more time on his knees, in front of the tabernacle of the Holy Eucharist.
His boundless energy and his spiritual depth emerged from a truly ever-flowing stream. He pondered in his heart the mysteries of existence, and he sought to live his life in the presence of the divine. But however active in the world he was, he was also, distinctly, a mystic; and in him, a true marriage of piety and justice did abide, and through him, we can all be inspired to seek that unity of the spirit in our own lives.
He sought to know the will of God, and to live it out through his life. In so doing, it must honestly be said, that in the eyes of some of us at least, he made mistakes and misjudgments. His actions sometimes had less than positive consequences. The Vatican’s ban on condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa is perhaps the most tragic example. The Church’s position toward women and toward our homosexual brothers and sisters also has not, in my view, furthered the unity of our human family, nor has it affirmed the worth and dignity of all people.
But even John Paul’s failings (as we see them) can be a legacy to us. In our own humility, we, too, need to contemplate the possible negative consequences of some of the stands we take on various issues, trying to bring about justice in this world. We see but in a mirror dimly, and we know only in part.
Our salvation is love. And our bridge to one another is humility.
As John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has written:
But even more, we have lost a brother, a teacher, and a friend to humankind.
And that, perhaps, is why we truly mourn.