POPE JOHN PAUL II
A PERSONAL TRIBUTE
POPE JOHN PAUL II
Pope John Paul II as he greets
the public during the Kiefers'
visit to The Vatican
He'll be remembered for
his strong convictions
By JOYCE KIEFER
My husband and I had arrived in Rome the previous night. When we awoke we decided to get acquainted with the Eternal City by starting with the neighborhood around our small hotel. We noticed the long wall of the Vatican at the end of our street. Wed start there.
We entered at St. Peters Square and found a large crowd milling about. Surprise--the pope was expected to arrive any minute to give his weekly blessing in the square. I focused my binoculars on the canopied spot in front of the entrance. But suddenly everyone turned toward my right. In rode our neighbor the pope. No grand entrance, no bullet-proof shield. He sat just above the crowd, stoop-shouldered, hatless, smiling and waving to all of us. He was in his element.
The atmosphere was one of delight rather than reverence.
We stayed to listen to him read messages of greeting in several languages. When his voice began to waver, we decided to leave. I wanted my last memory of Pope John Paul II to be his joy in the midst of people that transcended his frailties.
This was two years ago.
My first memory of him was his visit to San Francisco in 1987. I had won two tickets at our parish church to attend his Mass at Candlestick Park where the Giants and 49ers drew shivering crowds to watch their games. My husband and I joined a crowd of 70,000 spectators. We all cheered as the Popemobile entered the stadium. Behind a protective encasementhe had been shot 6 years earlier--the pope smiled and waved as he circled the stadium. Then he said Mass. His magnetic presence transcended the distance, from the altar, the hard seats, the cold.
Ive lived through five papacies. As a child I thought of the pope as the stern-looking portrait I saw at school. It seemed to have a dialog balloon that said, Im infallible and youre not. God will get you if you dont agree with me. But when I was a young adul, Pope John XXIII changed my impression of papal inflexibility. He was warmly human. He let fresh air into the church and precipitated huge changes in liturgy and empowerment of lay people in their own parishes.
This was the time when the Iron Curtain hung firmly in place. In 1963the year John XXIII died--Morris West published a novel called The Shoes of the Fisherman. He speculated what it would be like if the pope were not Italian but Ukrainian. How would the church and its clash with Russian communism play out with Kiril I as pope?
We would find out 15 years later, but the pope would be Polish and would choose the name John Paul II. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the 20th century would be his part in precipitating the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. At St. Matthews School we prayed every day for this miracle to occur.
I will also remember Pope John Paul II for what I consider to be his major challenge to the 21st century: his firm belief in moral absolutes, in a truth that resides in what God wants of mankind in relation to Himself and in behavior of one person toward another. He places morailty beyond politics, which he finessed in the last century. Morality, in his view, is not defined as the greatest good for the greatest number. Nor is it the greatest good for the individual, the greatest number be damned. Abortion, stem-cell research, creation of life in the lab, end-of-lifestands on these issues are not liberal or conservative, communist or capitalist, they are moral ones.
The argument--and I believe there should be argument--is on the basis of morality. The pope and I may differ here: The argument is not won by ex-cathedrahence infallible statements from the papal throne. Instead, the victory is agreement to discuss what morality is in the first place and where it comes from.
Pope John Paul II had ironclad conviction about what morality is and that it is much bigger than what works for me personally right now. He led a Church whose teachings originate with Christ. He saw a divine purpose for human existence that points to a life after this one. He has challenged us to look beyond ourselves. This is his legacy.
©2005 by Joyce Kiefer. The photo of Pope John Paul II is courtesy of the official Vatican website. The photo of The Pope greeting the crowd is the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted April 4, 2005.
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