Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pope John Paul II

In the fall of 1978 I was in graduate school, a teaching assistant in the math department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was living in an apartment on Langdon Street in Madison. And— somehow this is the way it sticks in my memory— I clipped two articles to save, just weeks apart, out of Newsweek. One article had to do with the steep decline in the number of breweries in the United States. The other had to do with the election of a new pope.

Actually, it was the second new pope in a matter of weeks. When Paul VI died, Pope John Paul I was elected: looking back now, a quarter of a century later, I'm trying to remember how long it was, but it seems to me that John Paul I died after only about a month in the papacy. So soon the cardinals were meeting again, and this time Karol Wojtyla of Poland became Pope John Paul II.

And now, after a papacy of 26½ years, John Paul II has died. He was truly one of the giants.

He was a spiritual giant. Agree with him or disagree with him, he was a spiritual giant. One of the quirks of contemporary Western culture— and it is greatly to our discredit— is the incapacity of many to see greatness except where the "great" is already in seamless agreement with them (or except where the "great" is even further to the left than they are, which is even more to our discredit). I like to think that Pope John Paul II, by his sheer presence and by his unyielding and personable witness, stood as a sign of contradiction against this tendency in our culture.

He also provided the Roman Catholic Church with an infusion of backbone, at a time when Catholicism seemed to be headed pell-mell toward imitating and recapitulating many of the most dismal traits of mainline Protestantism. Don't get me wrong, I'm a Presbyterian and I can't imagine myself as a Catholic; but I'm grateful that the Roman Catholic Church today is something more than just a pale "stay in tune with the times" imitation of the Presbyterian or Methodist church down the street.

(Now when are they going to bring back the Latin Mass? Never happen, I know; but I'm only halfway joking. Also, why can't Catholics sing??!)

And of course there's John Paul II and the fall of Communism. If today there is no longer an Iron Curtain or a Soviet Union, and if today Communist ideology has been consigned to the dustbin of history, this pope certainly deserves a share of the credit.

Pope John Paul II. Born May 18, 1920. Ordained November 1, 1946. Became a bishop, July 4, 1958; archbishop, December 30, 1963; cardinal, June 26, 1967; pope, October 16, 1978. Died April 2, 2005.



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