Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Passing of a Giant -- John Paul II

I was sitting in Lenny's Sub Shop opposite the old factory building that is, for the moment, our church, with Rosemary and two small boys from our congregation having lunch today. In an absent-minded moment I glanced up at the television and saw the news flash that Pope John Paul II had died. I was hardly surprised, but much saddened, a sadness that has hung will me all afternoon. Since reading George Weigel's biography of John Paul II several years ago I have developed the profoundest respect for this great man of faith, who played a major role in changing the face of Europe and the world, as well as exercising a huge influence over the shape of world Christianity for our time -- and beyond.

We live at a moment when these giants of an earlier generation are passing from the scene, individuals whose obedience to Christ has made them beacons of hope in a troubled and confused world. The Pope was a man who was blessed with great gifts of personality and intellect, but instead of using them for gain and aggrandizement, he humbly laid them at the foot of the Cross and asked the Lord to use them as he felt best.

The audience roared its approval when from his surprising perch in Rome he provided an example of leadership for the Slavic peoples that led them to throw off the shackles of totalitarianism. He knew just how evil the Soviet empire was, and stood against its dehumanizing pressures so that eventually it was bound to fall.

However, that same audience was dismayed when John Paul spelled out the theology and philosophy of personhood that undergirded his whole way of thinking. How could this man we so narrow-minded, they said, and now that he was not singing their tune they dismissed him as a worn-out Polish reactionary, an old man who behind the walls of the Vatican has become an irrelevancy. Because the Pope's whole approach to time and eternity began at the foot of the Cross on which the Savior of the world's blood was shed in propitiatory sacrifice, he was painted by contemporary secularists and radical modifiers of the faith alike, as a hang-over from an obscurantist past.

This is because his most basic intellectual and spiritual presuppositions challenged their minimization of the uniqueness of human personhood and identity; neither did he care for the manner in which their trivialization of our race devalued sexuality, reproduction, and the value of the human being made in the image of God. Yet John Paul II will have an enduring legacy, and I suspect that for decades to come his words and writings on the human person will be enduring.

Battles over human sexuality are merely the first clashes in what will be a war over whether we are creatures made in God's image (and therefore finding wholeness within the context of obedience to God and his revelation), and those who believe they have a fresh vision for what it means to be human. These latter are rampant in many areas of endeavor and discovery, believing that they are the ones who will guide the next chapter of human evolution. They have, of course, their fellow-travelers within the churches, John Paul's included, whose arrogance and self-confidence is a strange contrast to the man from Krakow whose eyelids closed in death this afternoon.

I confess that there are elements of John Paul's theology and devotion that trouble me, but I hope that I am humble and perceptive enough to recognize a truly obedient man. His conditioning and faith might vary radically from mine, but he walked the way of the Cross in a manner that I can only envy, and with awe give thanks for. And now he has gone -- leaving big shoes to fill, but he has more than left his mark.

So, I will go to bed tonight with a profound sense of loss for, although an Anglican looking in at the Catholic world from the outside, I identified with John Paul II far more than many in my own ecclesial domain. By this I mean those who have compromised the integrity of the faith, and are in the process of charging over the Gaderene precipice. These Lilliputians so married to the spirit of this age, are likely to be long forgotten in times to come, when the legacy of this giant, John Paul II, will still be riding high.

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