I have never felt so much sorrow over the death of a man I never met. Pope John Paul II passed from this earth on Saturday and I cried a little when I heard the news. Of course it was expected, but the death of a loved one always hits you like a ton of bricks. John Paul II, however, was about life, not about death. He was a great inspiration to me, and will continue to be. Here are nine ways this magnificent man inspires me.
First in my mind is the fact that he was a writer. He was prolific, cranking out books and 14 encyclicals throughout his 26-year pontificate. I just finished reading his delightful memoir, “Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way,” the book published last year in which Karol Wojtyla shares his thoughts on being a bishop in Poland. I will have to re-read some of his great works, such as “The Splendor of the Truth,” and “Faith and Reason.” His work is empathetic and logical – an incredible recipe for persuasion. He was a poet as well which, as a fellow writer, I can appreciate. He recognized the beauty of words and language, and he cared about the way words sounded and fit together. Although the message was always important, I am sure he appreciated the process of writing well. He was truly a writer's writer.
Second, he was so international. The most-traveled pope in history could speak two-dozen languages. My wife and I heard him greet people in many of those languages during a public audience in spring of 1994. I found John Paul II’s international aura to be inspirational. Although Americans travel, we are not particularly an international people. We think of our own country first and barely ever think of other countries. Most Americans probably can’t name more than a dozen countries. Pope John Paul II visited 129 of them. John Paul reminded me that the man in Cairo or the woman in Teheran are as much my brother or sister as the man in St. Paul or the woman in Rochester. When we watch all the political nonsense on television, especially during the campaign season, it is nice to remember that we are first subjects in the Kingdom of God, then citizens of the United States.
Third, he understood forgiveness. He forgave the man who tried to kill him, and he asked forgiveness for the past faults of the Church. It takes humility to seek forgiveness, but the Pope was a humble man and it gained him so much credibility. The word “pontiff” means “bridge builder,” and Pope John Paul II built many bridges. He reached out to the Jewish people, and people of all faiths, by asking forgiveness. It is difficult for me to judge, but my sense is his sincerity and humility did make a difference. There has been forgiveness and healing in the last two and a half decades – more so than in many previous years. Christ said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). To be poor in spirit means to be humble. John Paul II inspires me to try to be humble.
Fourth, he worked hard, right up to his last days. In America, nearly everyone is looking forward to retirement at age 65 or sooner. But Karol Wojtyla didn’t even become pope until age 58 (young by pope standards) and his life’s best work came while he was in his 60s, 70 and 80s. This is very inspiring to me, to know that I have my whole life to do good work and that my best work may well be ahead of me. I sure hope it is.
Fifth, he brought clarity to the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. While many people were afraid to deal with the 1968 church document that addressed birth control, Humanae Vitae, John Paul II dealt with it right away. From 1979 to 1984, he delivered a series of talks that has become known as his “Theology of the Body.” He very articulately describes the dignity of the human person. Nobody wants to be reduced to an object; nobody wants to be used. John Paul II understood that and helped people to see the beauty of true love, which for spouses involves total gift of self.
Sixth, he is an inspiration because he survived such a difficult upbringing. He lived through the Nazi occupation of his homeland. And his parents and only brother and sister were all dead by the time he was in his 20s. Karol Wojtyla had every excuse to be angry at the world, to claim that the world owed him something. But he rejected that path and gave back to the world -- big time. He turned those negative experiences into powerful assets. His experience with the Nazis helped him bring down communism.
Seventh, he gave us the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” This is one of the most valuable books in my family’s library. This book is so much more thoughtful than the catechism my parents grew up with. And it certainly beats not having any catechism, which was the situation so many people faced from the 1950s to the 1980s. My experience is that most people want to do the will of God. They may not articulate their desire as such but, in fact, that is their desire. They just need someone to tell them what that means. They need some direction. The Catechism gives us that direction.
Eighth, he loved young people. Kids have a lot of pressures on them. In many ways, the odds are stacked against today’s young people. Corporate America sees them only for their buying power. Many older folks have given up on young people as disrespectful, faithless, selfish or worse. But not John Paul II. He loved young people and reached out to them. World Youth Day was one of John Paul II’s great contributions to the culture. I know many people who have been inspired by the events in Denver or Toronto or Paris. My only regret is that my own children were too young to attend any of these World Youth Day events, but they will attend them when they are ready, and surely the spirit of this great pope will be there.
And ninth, he showed us how to die. Although he suffered in his dying days, John Paul II did not complain. He did not shy away from people, but continued to reach out to them. It is reported that in his last hours, with thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square outside his apartment window, he said: “I am happy and you should be too. Do not weep. Let us pray together in joy.” It was a cue that he took from Christ himself, who told the women of Jerusalem on the way to His crucifixion not to weep for Him (Luke 23:28). Even with the tube that was inserted through John Paul's nose in his last days, this was a dignified death – not so much because of what was surrounding him, but because of what was inside of him – the same peace and joy Karol Wojtyla wanted us to know from the moment he became Pope John Paul II in 1978 and declared to the world: “Be not afraid.”
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Monday, April 04, 2005
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