Monday, April 11, 2005

A Lapsed Catholic’s Reflection on John Paul II

The day John Paul II died, I asked my husband what most stuck in his mind about this Pope, and his response was that he wasn’t Catholic, which I already knew. I thought that John Paul II’s visit to Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate him in 1981, was remarkable. It was a concrete demonstration that one must forgive. I was upbeat about this Pope (thinking of him as the emissary of Vatican City, of course, not the infallible man of God). He was young, for a pope. He skied. He took on the Soviet Union’s domination of and the related miseries imposed on nations like Poland, and kicked some serious butt. But it turned out that he was a hard-line enforcer of traditional Church policy, which included rejection of birth control and ordination of women. For a man who dedicated his life to peace, alleviating poverty, and banishing a variety of inequities, this seemed an utter, heartbreaking contradiction. But then, being the Pope has always been about being a dictator of sorts, and indeed this man was a benevolent dictator, acting for the ultimate Dictator. For a man who was not trying to win a popularity contest, he did a darned good job of it. The adulation that his death summoned actually caused local officials to say, Please don’t come here, because Rome is closed.
I was up late Thursday night watching a portion of John Paul II’s funeral which ran three hours. I opted for the midnight to 1:30 shift, and then lapsed into my bed. I watched as the heads of state emerged from St. Peter’s Bascillica and the Pope’s cypress coffin was brought outside to lie before the temporary alter on the Bascillica steps. I made a decision when I was 15 years old to bag the Catholic Church for cause, but I wanted to watch the funeral because I understood that this was one of those momentary lulls in history when the world gets to take a breather before we go back to beating the crap out of each other.
Along with so very many others, I was raised a Catholic, which means that you got enough until you’d had enough. Since there were 6 kids in my family, my parents could afford to pay for a complete Catholic education for only the first two. The rest of us escaped with catechism classes, so that we could learn the vital basics of our religion and enough about strict nuns to be able to participate in jokes later in life. Even with spotty training I will always have an emotional struggle between the Catholic Church as a place of tangible, deep, rich beauty, of music, art, and learning, of the friendly smell of burning candles, and the Catholic Church of immutable positions, which defy its obligation to be kind, and generous, and even logical.
When the man born Karol Josef Wojtyl died on April 2, after nearly 27 years as the emissary of God to the Catholic Church, he showed the world what it should know about life and death. You do the job you’re given, and when you’re done, you’re done. He kept himself together and kept working while dealing with Parkinson’s disease—a disease that traps a good mind in a bad body. He did not abdicate his position and its burdens. My mother asked me the week before he died if I thought the Pope should abdicate, and her question surprised me. Catholics are taught that the Pope is infallible, so is infallibility something you can loose or hand over? Would he have become fallible and un-chosen? It made no sense that a strong man of deep conviction would step down, but it turns out that he had considered resigning in 2000, after marking the beginning of Christianity’s third millennium.
You don’t get converts and retain the faithful without publicity. John Paul II loved the spotlight, and he understood the importance of as many people as possible seeing him on his energetic world tours, plying the Church’s teachings. He allowed modern technology to fill the need of believers to hold something solid, a big-time Catholic tradition that goes from fun (patron saint devotional candles for $ 1.50 at the grocery store) to very creepy (pieces of dead folks), so he actually specified that people would be allowed to take pictures of him when they viewed his body—digital cameras, camera phones, etc. When I heard that I flashed on absurd images of people taking pictures of themselves with his body, but apparently it meant that they could take pictures of him as he lay in the Bascillica.
Representatives of over 80 counties attended the funeral, and I’m sitting on my couch in the throes of some sort of weirdo pride, saying, “Yeah, see who the big guy is now!” And what’s the big damned deal? It’s not his position, of course, but his power: a billion followers not constrained by language, politics, or geography. Influence like that is a very dangerous thing, and the various Dignitaries in Black weren’t stupid. This extends even to Bush, who was wise enough not to send Cheney in his stead, since Cheney’s last international showing was at the Auschwitz-Birkenau commemoration ceremony in January, and he showed up looking like a sullen high schooler in a hooded jacket and a baseball cap. Mrs. Bush wore the obligatory mantilla on her head, but demonstrated a breach of protocol by wearing a black skirt cut above her knees.
By day number four my husband was getting irritated, because he was getting “poped” out. He asked me if I thought the Catholic Church had done either more harm or good. After I clarified that he meant over its entire history, I definitely said that it had done more harm. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the ruin of counties and races because they were not Christians, on and on. At least the gold decorating those fabulous cathedral interiors had the blood burned off of it before it was used. Whatever solace the Church offers to the individual has been bought over history with savagery and greed. The Reformation was nothing less than what the Church deserved. John Paul II inherited both certain ancient laws and modern edicts, and he was their interpreter and enforcer without apology. Still, I will always see him with that friendly face.
So you wonder who’s next, and how much light or misery will come. Or maybe you could care less. During John Paul II’s reign I finally got around to getting a bible. About five years ago I took one from a hotel in Sacramento, then I lost it, and my dad replaced it with an edition with an index and footnotes. I figured, what the hell, the damned thing is the foundation of much of western civilization And I really needed one for my reference library.


At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very informative blog... - audio bible story u can some good info there as well

At 7:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The all I can say that the pop was great person and he respect womans and mans in the same way.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous said...

I like your blog; however, the Crusades were part of 1000 year war started by Arab and Turkish aggression and won (until now) by European nation states. The Inquisition while horrible was small potatoes compared to what was done by non Christian Fascist and Communist Empires of the 20th century. The indigenous peoples you refer to were persecuted by the same European Nation States with some attempt at restraint imposed by the Churches. The Church was responsible for preserving culture during the dark ages, funding the Renaissance initially, and performing various charitable acts through its missions. The record is on balance positive by a large margin. I did however admire the overall honesty and fairness of your presentation.

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