On Labour day 2011, Pope John Paul II will be beatified by his successor and good friend Benedict XVI. John Paul II is the only Pope I truly know. True that I now know who Benedict is, but I still have found it a bit more difficult to digest his encyclicals. I was born during the Papacy of Paul VI, but all I can remember of Paul VI is his shell shocked Hamlet-like expression as a result of Humanae Vitae. John Paul I I remember as a smiling Bishop of Rome but he reigned only for a month or so.
My father read the news of John Paul II's election and he couldn't figure out where this Pope came from. He thought he was Russian. In a sense John Paul II was unexpected and only now we know why God chose him to lead Christ's flock.
John Paul II responded to God's call for him to be a Pontiff whose original meaning is "bridge builder". He was able to bridge distances with his jet setting apostolic journeys. In one of them in 1981, then Protestant me got blessed. I waved and he blessed me (or what was probably the crowd), but still I was blessed. And I saw him, he was so pink in the tropical heat.
And that was the start of the long walk to learn what Catholicism is. And when I saw this prayerful man, pray at Canterbury with the Primate of All England.
Note that his shoes were old and well trodden. An apt reality of a man tasked to preach the Good News by word and deed! And who says the Pope wore Prada!?!?!
In a gesture that shocked traditionalists, Pope John Paul II in 1986 prayed with representatives of many religions in Assisi in a World Day of Prayer. His address is here. But this is the gist of his address is this
"Peace goes much beyond human efforts, particularly in the present plight of the world, and therefore that its source and realization is to be sought in that Reality beyond all of us"
There can be no Peace without God!
To which Benedict XVI reflected on a letter to the Bishop of Assisi on the 20th anniversary of that prayer gathering
"It is under this profile that the initiative John Paul II promoted 20 years ago has acquired the features of an accurate prophecy. His invitation to the world's religious leaders to bear a unanimous witness to peace serves to explain with no possibility of confusion that religion must be a herald of peace."
It is said that for that moment when all of them prayed in Assisi, no gunshot was fired in anger!
John Paul II is credited by many as the one person who toppled atheistic Communism in Eastern Europe. But he himself said that it was due to people who thirsted for truth, liberty and faith that made it happen.
The Pope in his later years showed the deterioration associated with Parkinson's disease. His journey then to the gates of Eternal Life was a witness that all life is valuable from conception to its natural end. His concern for the environment sets the stage for an authentic theology of the environment in the 1990 World Day of Peace Message which his successor has further elaborated
And this is so prophetic for the world 21 years later
"When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue."
On his death, the Pope was not just a Pope for the Catholics but a Pope for all who have faith. The Bishop of Rome has always been a sign, he is a sign of hope, a sign of contradiction and a sign of unity. During his funeral, it became the largest gathering of world leaders ever. It became the largest gathering of religious leaders. Jews, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Anglicans, Buddhists, Hindus etc prayed for the departed Pope.
The Bishop of Rome continues to witness that in the darkest days of our history as a human society, when we are perilously close to destroying ourselves, there is always another way, the way out!
John Paul II has indeed followed the call of his Master to build bridges and to let walls fall.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, pray for us. Pray that we may build bridges on the road to Peace.