TCS Daily

'Be Not Afraid'

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 6, 2005 12:00 AM

In my lifetime, there have been three Popes, but only one who in that period of time so thoroughly dominated the world's imagination: Pope John Paul II, known once as Karol Józef Wojtyla. It wasn't simply because his reign was so long, though he did enjoy a long reign on the throne of St. Peter. It wasn't simply because his reign coincided with the blossoming of the Information Age, though during his reign, John Paul saw the growth of 24 hour cable news and the Internet -- both of which spent a great deal of time tracking his peripatetic and hyperactive travel habits as well as his unique and consequential ministry. No, John Paul II created a special niche for himself in the history of the Catholic Church by embracing ecumenical causes that all people of goodwill could support and endorse. He lent his immensely powerful office, his magnetic personality, his formidable and scholarly intellect and his immense charm to causes of seriousness and great purpose.

John Paul II transformed the landscape of the world by reaching out to faiths long ignored by the Catholic Church and engendering a degree of religious reconciliation the likes of which have not been witnessed and enjoyed by humanity in centuries. Although there is no argument that religious reconciliation is still an unfinished task, it perhaps would have remained almost entirely untouched were it not for the Pope's intense interest in the issue.

John Paul II was the first Pope to visit a mosque, and in making the visit, he helped the Catholic Church reach out to a faith whose direction and sociopolitical impact are the subject of pressing concern not only in theological circles, but in governmental ones as well. Of course, it makes perfect sense to us now to have the Pope reach out to schools, scholars and clergy of Islam and create an interfaith dialogue that could help engender greater understanding and cooperation on social and political issues, but it bears remembering just how groundbreaking John Paul's efforts were. And it also bears remembering just how much fruit they can yield. Given that much of the radical Muslim world still stews over the Crusades and "the tragedy of Andalusia", such outreach efforts are geopolitical necessities and it is a testament to John Paul's farsightedness that he realized as much.

Seeking to transcend a history of ill will between the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith, John Paul II also became the first Pope to visit a synagogue, and to pray at the Wailing Wall -- perhaps Judaism's holiest of sites. He normalized relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, stood up and condemned anti-Semitism vigorously and repeatedly and apologized for the Catholic Church's gross mistreatment of Jews in years past. These path-breaking efforts have fully set the Vatican on the road to modernity in terms of its relationship with the Jewish people; it is a road from which the Vatican can never turn back.

Of course, John Paul II will be remembered as one who internationalized the Papacy and the reach of the Holy See through his travels across the globe. To be sure, such travels helped augment the presence and influence the Pope wielded. But they also did something else. They helped John Paul II fulfill his destiny as a great champion for human liberation.

Almost from the outset, John Paul II used his personal and political powers to highlight the suffering of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain -- especially his fellow Poles. Joseph Stalin once dismissed the political influence of the Holy See by asking sneeringly "How many divisions has the Pope?" John Paul II never had divisions at his command, but he could wield a power far greater than anything at the disposal of the Red Army and the Politburo. All of the guns at the Kremlin's command could never engender willing acquiescence on the part of the captive Soviet satellites to Moscow's rule. But mere words from John Paul II had the power to annihilate the most reprehensible empire since the short-lived but much too prolonged one of the Nazis. Before his fellow Poles, in 1979, the Pope gave them the courage to stand up and destroy that empire:

        You must be strong, dear brothers and sisters. You must be strong with 
        the strength that comes from faith ... Today more than in any other age 
        you need this strength. I ask that you never despair, never grow weary, 
        never become discouraged; that those roots from which we grow are never 
        severed; that you keep your faith despite each of your weaknesses, 
        that you always seek strength from Him, where so many generations 
        of our fathers and mothers have found it... That you never lose the freedom 
        of the spirit for which He has liberated man; that you never spurn that love, 
        expressed by the cross, without which human life has no roots and no 
        meaning. I ask this of you.

These words helped the people of Poland, of the former Czechoslovakia, of Hungary, of Romania, of East Germany and ultimately of the Soviet Union itself to overthrow their enslavement. Against them, the goons of the Kremlin and their various puppet thugs could do nothing. "Be not afraid," was the motto of John Paul II. He showed immense courage in his struggles against totalitarianism -- courage that may very well have caused the Soviet Union to order the 1981 assassination attempt on the Pope. By his example, the people to whom the Pope preached gained courage as well and engendered a monumental victory against the oppression of the Soviet Union.

John Paul II was not a perfect Pope. He reacted much too slowly to the sex scandals that engulfed the Catholic Church here in the United States. The Holy See opposed the war in Iraq but never came up with an alternative policy on how to handle rogue states in the post-September 11th world. And constituencies of the Catholic Church felt isolated and alienated thanks to some of the doctrine promulgated by John Paul II.

And yet, the legacy of John Paul II is an overwhelmingly positive one. His ability to reach out to those traditionally forgotten by the Catholic Church has helped the Church become more attuned to worldly concerns and to make itself more relevant to the day and age in which it lives. His unstinting advocacy for human dignity and liberty helped change the map of the world for the better. A short, athletic, worldly, intellectually powerful polyglot with twinkling eyes, a ready smile and a profound capacity for empathy, charm, and abiding love for his fellow human beings, John Paul II demonstrated both physical and political vigor throughout most of his reign. Near the end of it, ravaged by disease, he was stooped, worn down and immensely weakened, but he worked unceasingly nevertheless to fulfill his goals. Let his suffering be remembered as an example to us all on how to endure personal struggles we may think to be unendurable. But let us remember him in his glory as well -- as a profoundly gifted man who devoted those gifts to the prosperity and well being of others. He was humanity's devoted friend. And humanity is poorer for having lost him.


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