I was in Israel attending a meeting with 15 Cardinals and 45 Bishops (all bishops who have a Redemptoris Mater seminary in their diocese) when the news flashed announcing the death of the Pope. Standing up on our feet, we clapped. An ovation that meant sheer devotion and pure love. He was such a great man!
Yes, we had mixed feelings. On one hand, we were sad because we had just lost a friend and a father. Many had tears in their eyes. On the other hand, we were happy because now he is eternally with the Jesus and Mary whom he had loved so dearly while on earth. Divine Mercy will now embrace him forever.
That Saturday night on hearing the news of his death, the crowd gathered at St Peter’s Square started chanting in unison, ‘santo, santo, santo’. Indeed he was a saint.
I noticed, on TV, a napkin flagging with the message written in a child’s hand, ‘Up there, surely you’re the most handsome angel!’
He bridged nations, religions, ages. The headlines in the most important newspaper in Israel roared in bold letters ‘The Pope of the Jews’. Imagine that! Mehmet Ali Agca, the would be assassin whom the Pope forgave, called him ‘my spiritual brother’. Jaruzelski, the Polish communist dictator who battled the Pope over Solidarity’s right to exist, called him a ‘great man’.
I had the opportunity to shake hands with him five times, twice in my capacity as provincial superior of the Discalced Carmelites and three times as an itinerant catechist of the Neocatechumenal Way. Last time I saw him was this January. At the end of a world meeting for catechists of the Neocatechumenal Way, we met him at Sala Nervi in the Vatican. Fabio, Edivaldo and Simone, seminarians from our seminary in Guam, were there also. That morning he was radiant with joy.
But the image which will always remain stuck in my mind is him visibly in pain, leaning and holding tight to the cross. This was the secret of this giant of faith – the power and the fruitfulness of the glorious cross which he espoused so dearly.
While all of us run away from suffering, he embraced it!
In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told us “I must lead the Church with suffering…. The Pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”
The cross is magnificent. When asked a few years ago if he might consider resigning, John Paul reportedly asked, in reply, “Did Christ come down from the cross?” Never underestimate the power of example.
Christianity has a secret. “In Jesus Christ, God bends down over man to hold out a hand to him, to raise him up, and to help him continue his journey with renewed strength”, wrote Pope John Paul II in his last book ‘Memory And Identity’.
Jesus was a suffering victim who seemed to have been defeated by the earthly powers. But in his moment of apparent weakness and defeat, He came out triumphant, dying for humanity’s sins and opening the way to heaven. Thus in Him we can be victorious. This is what Pope John Paul II believed and lived.
“The spectacle of his condition crystallizes his ferocious attachment to life – the most central, coherent and consistent teaching of his papacy – whether that life is threatened in the womb by abortion, or in old age by euthanasia,” wrote Newsweek. A basic assumption of Christian belief is that God cares for every person, no matter how broken or how lowly his status is.
He showed us the possibility to live otherwise. He promoted peace not through confrontation but by winning hearts and minds. He believed in the wisdom of our faith and asserted it vigorously and intelligently even if some expected him to be ‘flexible’.
He reached out to Jews, Muslims, Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
He had a personal experience of the ideologies of evil, first Nazism, then communism. He perceived the obnoxious and subtle evil which lies in the empty pursuit of wealth and the spiritual poverty that often accompanies it.
He understood that the basic root of all pain of the modern man is ‘self love to the point of contempt of God’. This leads man to the stupid autonomy that he can decide what is good and what us evil.
And he understood that the only way to overcome this tragic fallacy is ‘love for God to the point of contempt of self’.
Shortly after Valeria Ingrassia, a Frenchwoman married an Italian, Pope John Paul II attended a Mass at her parish in Rome. She caught his eye and yelled out that she was a newlywed,
“The Pope practically jumped across the barricade and past a piano to get to me. When he reached me, he blessed me,” she recalls, brushing away a stream of tears. “I was never able to have children, but I know that because of that blessing I was able to adopt my two wonderful kids.”
“I will never forget that look he gave me in church. It was as if he was saying, ‘Go ahead, be strong and live your life.”
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