Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pope John Paul II

Everybody and their mother is writing on the passing of Pope John Paul II. That has left very little other news that seems worthy of pointing to or commenting on, and believe me I even dug through the foreign press. I believe that we have not seen the end of the Schiavo case either but I am neither legal scholar nor medical expert enough to comment on what's new there at this point.

As a background for my opinions on this topic I will give you a small background on me. I was raised in a rural Roman Catholic community. I was baptized, did First Communion and was an alter boy for many years. I spent a significant amount of time with various good priests at our parish (no, not those kinds of priests, seriously goodhearted men of God). As such I learned more about the workings of a parish and the hierarchy and rules of the church than most American Roman Catholics. I am old enough to remember the passing of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I (amazingly if you were old enough to remember one you are old enough to remember both). I spent an hour or more taking my turn ringing the tower bells at my parish church after the passing of Pope Paul VI. I watched twice, with childhood fascination, the process that is now underway again. I had the benefit of more access to good priests to understand it all, as much as a child can, than most Catholics ever have.

As many teenagers do I walked away from the Church and religion in general late in my teen years and rediscovered my faith a few years later. I would now call myself an evangelical Christian. The Roman Catholic church still considers me a Catholic in good standing and I still observe some of the tradition out of a combination of habit and a sense that it is worthy of observing.

The coverage..... aside from there being just too much of it, I have some opinions. Actually, I take that back, there isn't too much coverage of the passing of the Pope and the process that is going to take its course over the next few weeks. The problem with this event, like so many others in the past few years, is that the coverage is to the exclusion of everything else. During the hours when we believed the Pope's passing was imminent it was reasonable that only a very major event would bring the cameras of the 24 hour news services off of this story. The man is the elected head of a church of more than a billion people so his death is huge news. A few hours later the cameras could have come off periodically to tell us what else was going on in the world. He died and the process that is going to unfold is going to take weeks, not hours, to complete. 36 hours after the passing of the Pope someone who had been watching one of the news services for 48 hours straight couldn't have told you anything about what was going on anywhere else in the world except for the latest "twist" in the Michael Jackson trial. Is there a good synonym for "very very extremely highly disappointing"? We should not be surprised as many other stories of late have similarly dominated the news, none of which were even remotely as important as this one.

One could expect that the average news person not only would not know the first thing about Papal succession, but would not even understand most of the vocabulary involved. IMHO, the average sincerely practicing American Roman Catholic doesn't, so why should the average news guy. I did, however, expect the average American news guy to actually find people with a clue to interview instead of spouting off without one. As usual, some of the coverage was responsible and even quite good but most of it was neither. There are so many people pointing this out better than I could that I won't even bother to cross link. Check out Hugh Hewitt (another ex-Catholic) for a list and RantingProfs for journalistic perspective from my BlogRoll.

The man..... his life was one of those stories that makes the expression "truth is often stranger than fiction" real. He suffered the oppression of both the Nazis and the Soviet Communists. He left the theater as an adult to join the priesthood and moved through the ranks with rarely seen speed. He used his influence from the time he was a Bishop to encourage the forces of democracy in the eastern bloc countries starting with, but not limited to, his own beloved Poland. As Pope, he interacted with and worked with the great leaders of democracy to end the tyranny of Communism in Europe. All religion aside, this man will have a place in history for his unwavering leadership in one of the 20th century's greatest battles.

The Pope..... was a moderate Catholic. I know the news doesn't portray him that way but that is the reality. He was not conservative as Roman Catholic leaders go. He was involved in the process of Vatican II and upheld and pushed forward all of its tenets as Pope. Many Roman Catholics, including a majority of my small rural parish, saw much of Vatican II as very liberal and some of it as bordering on heretical. Pope John Paul II was a very strong leader and many people confuse his strength and insistence on obedience from the hierarchy as religious conservatism. Don't get me wrong, this Pope was hardly a religious liberal either. He pushed as hard as any modern Cardinal or Pope against abortion and euthanasia. He didn't even entertain the liberal/feminist outcry from western Europe, the US and Canada to allow women priests. He was, as Roman Catholic Popes go, a religious moderate.

The Interfaith leader..... as no Pope before him that I am aware of ever was. He set the stage to open unprecedented dialog between Roman Catholics and other Christians and was also a staunch supporter of Isreal and of Judeo-Christian interfaith efforts. At times he stepped outside of the bounds that very conservative Catholics were comfortable with on this topic in seeming to abandon accepted Catholic doctrine that "the only path to heaven was through THE Church". Personally, this was one of the issues that led me towards Protestantism as this doctrine seems to me to violate the text of the Bible itself. I struggle greatly with the Evangelical position that non-Christians are banned from heaven. The idea that one particular sect of Christianity has an exclusive lock on the afterlife is beyond comical to me. The Pope allowed Roman Catholics to accept other people of faith as friends and brothers-in-arms in the Biblical battle of good and evil. This was an accomplishment that borders on the greatness of his leadership in the fight against Communism. It will never get the popular press, and the historians may not understand its implications, but it is perhaps more important to the future of the world. It is arguable that Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher and the plethora of democratic leaders of the world involved would have defeated European Communism without the assistance of Pope John Paul II. It is much more difficult to make that argument with a straight face about the advances of religious alliances in the western world that include prominent Roman Catholics.

The crisis..... somebody has to talk about it. I assume, although others disagree, that Pope John Paul II had very little idea of the size of the pedophile crisis in the US until somewhere around the time that the story began breaking on American TV. The church is a hierarchy of actual human beings, all religiosity aside. As with all other hierarchies of humans I have observed, I assume that underlings in the church try to hide bad news from the boss in the hopes that it will go away quietly without the need to break the news to the boss. Once it broke and it was obvious that the American Cardinals were not taking care of business, the Pope pulled the Cardinals to Rome to have a little chat and sent them home with instructions to resolve the issue. I am guessing that he assumed they would do the right thing. They didn't even come close. I do not know exactly how to gauge this. None of us outside of the upper tiers of the hierarchy knows what the Pope did or did not do in an attempt to ensure that the conditions that allowed this rampant problem be shut down permanently. Having watched this man my entire adult life I have a hard time believing that he did not do a great deal that we know nothing about. We will probably never know for sure.

My single greatest disappointment..... was not only the shielding of Cardinal Law of Boston from prosecution but his promotion to head one of the Basilicas. One might forgive the pontiff for putting God's law above American law and granting asylum to a man with a (probable) pending federal criminal indictment, even in a pedophile case. It is hard for people of faith in the US to deny this right of the Church for US "criminals" and cheer when the Vatican gives asylum to some Chinese priest who clearly violated the law of his country in sponsoring an unauthorized mass. That said, I have a hard time understanding how any sane person can publicly promote such a man, and make no mistake, this was a huge promotion. Even if the Pope believed that Cardinal Law was totally innocent of any intentional wrongdoing of either US law or God's law, this was a slap in the face to devout American Catholics who wanted to see justice done for the harm that a few did to so many innocent young boys. Even if he didn't know, he should have. Cardinal Law's personal underlings were responsible for unspeakable crimes against hundreds of young boys that we know of. It might be arguable that he was simply totally incompetent..... but you do not promote severe known incompetence. I sincerely hope there is an explanation for this that we simply do not know. In the absence of that explanation I am struck with the impression that there is a schism between this Roman Catholic pontiff and Jesus Christ himself. If not the greatest crime, crimes against innocent children are among the greatest according to the teachings of the Saviour.

His Sainthood.... let me be one of the first (if you believe that I have a bridge for sale) to write that this man will be Sainted. If I worked in Vegas I would give huge odds based solely on the fact that almost every Pope before him has been. Given the fact that he visited more countries than all of the other Popes of the 20th century and was greatly loved in a personal way around the globe... it'll happen. Presidents, even presidents with immense personal presence like Ronald Reagan seemed dwarfed in the same room with this man. He will be named a saint by his church and the scores of Cardinals he promoted.

His legacy..... with humankind will be his role in the fall of the Soviet Union. His legacy with the Church will be better understood 20 years from now when we see what kind of Pope and Church the Cardinals he promoted bring forward. His legacy in the kingdom of heaven can be judged only by God himself. My guess is that the latter is the one he really cared most deeply about. He clearly cared about his church but he did what he did on the world stage because he thought it was right and not because he cared if the secular world would remember his name. It is also the one, IMVHO, that he has the least chance of phenomenal success with. The difficulty of success in the next world is the most difficult for all of us but this is even more true for anyone of fame inside or outside of the business of faith. For proof that this is difficult for men of in the leadership of faith (read priests, pastors, bishops, etc) with or without fame I offer 1st and 2nd Peter. They are short, go read them. It will enrich you and possibly enrich your church.

May God show his mercy on this man of incredible faith and may all of us on earth remember him more for his leadership and the great things he did than for his mistakes or our differences. Let us never forget the things that he did that made the world a better place. May God be with the mourners and the Cardinals with whom the future of the Roman Catholic Church resides in this time of transition and great worldwide stress. May the next Pope understand that other people of faith wish to work with the Roman Catholics of the world to make it an even better place for generations yet to come, and that God will bless this action.

And from another famous carol (sp?), "May God bless us, every one". We were blessed to have had this man where he was and when he was for many years. He is not, in my eyes, without fault (none of us are). But as a world leader he accomplished as much good as any I have seen in my short lifetime. Let us all pray that the next Pope will be an even greater man with the tutelage he received from the now dearly departed Pope John Paul II.


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