Sunday, April 03, 2005
On this day:

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

We've been reminded this weekend of just how important a figure Pope John Paul II has been in the 26 years since the young Karol Wojtyla, a son of Poland, ascended to the Throne of St. Peter. His papacy undoubtedly marked a crucial era in the history of the Catholic Church, but its impact extends well beyond the walls of the Vatican.

One of this pope's greatest accomplishments has been the reconciliation he fostered between the Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity. George Weigel, who wrote a biography of the pope entitled Witness to Hope, often tells the story of a conversation he once had with a friend who was a high-ranking official in the Southern Baptist Convention and a Texan. (It's in this commencement speech Weigel delivered at the Religious Studies Division of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.)
In the fall of 1995, shortly after his pilgrimage to New York, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, Pope John Paul II asked me what the reaction to his visit had been. I told him that a friend, a native of Texas and a high-ranking figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, had said to me, "Down where I come from, we say, ‘You folks have finally got yourself a pope who knows how to pope.’" For once, the polyglot John Paul, who speaks eight languages fluently, was utterly baffled -- until I explained that in Texan, a unique form of English, "pope" was both a verb and a noun. And then we both laughed.
Part of his "knowing how to pope" was his desire and ability to reach out to those of us who are non-Catholic. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope was asked why there are so many divisions among Christians. He responded that there two possible answers to the question, one negative and one positive.
Yes, indeed, we can truly ask ourselves: Why did the Holy Spirit permit all these divisions? In general, the causes and historical development of these divisions are well known. It is legitimate, however, to wonder if there is perhaps a metahistorical reason as well.

There are two possible answers to this question. The more negative one would see in these divisions the bitter fruit of sins committed by Christians. The more positive answer is inspired by trust in the One who is capable of bringing forth good even from evil, from human weakness. Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise.

More generally, we can affirm that for human knowledge and human action a certain dialectic is present. Didn't the Holy Spirit, in His divine "condescendence," take this into consideration? It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilizations. Wouldn't such a way of looking at things be, in a certain sense, more consonant with the wisdom of God, with His goodness and providence?
It was that kind of forthrightness that won him the respect, admiration, and love of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In the words of that Baptist from Texas, the man "knew how to pope." As we remember his life, our mourning is not for Karol Wojtyla - we can be confident that he's in good hands now. Our sorrow in his passing is for the world he leaves behind. RIP.