The death of Pope John Paul II on April 2 was a historic moment marking the end of a papacy of unparalleled importance not only for Catholics...
The death of Pope John Paul II on April 2 was a historic moment marking the end of a papacy of unparalleled importance not only for Catholics but for all people. Even so, the attention given to this event and the widespread emotions it has evoked suggest that it was more than the passing of a great leader. I believe its power over us comes from the fact that his papacy also represented what these decades in our lives have meant to us. His death was historic for us, for our personal and common lives in the time of John Paul II.
The pope is not just a person; he is also a symbol. Symbols can stir feelings that surprise our rational minds. Often during the eight years I lived in Rome, I noticed that many came to Rome saying, “The pope doesn’t mean much to me, but I might as well go to a papal audience while I am here,” only to find themselves moved to tears and ecstatically cheering in his presence. What has this pope symbolized in our own lives since 1978?
I was in St. Peter’s Square on the evening of Oct. 15, 1978, with 100,000 others anticipating the election of a new pope after the end of the first day of balloting in the conclave of cardinals. The smoke from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel at first came gray, then black, then white, then gray again, then yet again white, but finally and steadily black, black, black. The oohs and ahs of the crowd kept perfect time with this indecisive though finally negative signal. I thought at the time, “This is the biggest non-event I will ever attend!” but it was not a non-event; it was a symbol of the world of 1978.
The ’70s had been an unsteady time with the drawn-out ending of the Vietnam War, Watergate, worldwide economic recession, religious militancy in Israel and Ireland, genocide in Cambodia, tribal conflict in Africa, and greater antagonism between East and West. Culturally, in our own country, this was a time of the collapse of commitments in marriage and religious professions. A book by Arthur Levine, portraying a generation of college students and based on 1978 surveys, was titled “When Dreams and Heroes Died.” The smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney was tellingly unsteady for unsteady times.
I was back in St. Peter’s Square the next night, Oct. 16, 1978, with an even larger crowd to await the smoke from the second day’s balloting. When it came it, too, was unsteady: white, gray, black, gray, white. But then, unmistakably, white, white, white. A new pope had been chosen. When the cardinal deacon proclaimed the famous “Habemus papam!” (“We have a pope!”) and announced him to be Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, who had chosen the name John Paul II, the reaction of the crowd was underwhelming: “Chi é?!” (“Who is that?!”) But the first non-Italian pope in 450 years won over that crowd for his very first words in clear Italian were, “I am not able to speak your language — I should rather say our language — very well. If I make mistakes, please correct me!”
Here was a clear, strong, unfaltering voice in 1978. Here was a pope who from that first moment and until a week ago Saturday knew how to show his love and to make known who he was and what he thought. But the most important word from that very first sentence and in every sentence thereafter was “our.” What this pope did for all of us was to make the world known to us and show us that it is “our world.”
No person in human history has done more to make known the reality of the world to all people than did Pope John Paul II. He did this by his travels, his embracing of cultures, his compassion, his presence to suffering, his courageous standing up against war and violence, indignity, the forces of death and injustice. Our knowledge of the world has been inestimably increased by him.
But he has not only made the world known to us, he has made us aware that it is our world in the sense that the dignity of its humanity is our responsibility, its people our brothers and sisters with whom we have solidarity, and its destiny is in our hands. So significant has been this gift that we can speak of our lives in the time of John Paul II and be moved by how his life and death represented our experience of the world in these decades.
What kind of a world has our world been during the time of John Paul II? He became pope three-quarters of the way through a century in which, on average, 2,500 people were killed every day by war and 10 times that number died every day from hunger and preventable diseases. Our world in his time has continued to be ravaged by brutal wars, by genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and elsewhere, and by extreme poverty. The companion headline to the one Saturday that gave news of John Paul II’s death could have been, “20,000 persons died today of extreme poverty.” That is the reality of our world in his time.
Our world in these decades has also been one of reconciliation, compassion and dialogue: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doctors Without Borders, Mother Teresa, courageous women demanding an end to war, interreligious dialogue and prayer, an outpouring of human generosity in response to suffering, the slow process of breaking down ethnic and racial barriers, the hard-won gains of peace. The images of John Paul II bending close to his would-be assassin to express forgiveness and, more recently, with trembling hands placing a page of apology for Catholic anti-Semitism in the Wailing Wall, symbolize this dimension of our world in his time and move our hearts.
Our own lives have been transformed since 1978 by the Internet and cellphones, globalization, HIV/AIDS, diversity, the recognition of gay and lesbian persons, economic entrepreneurship and dislocation, terrorism and insecurity, mass culture dominated by an inescapable media, genetic experimentation, transformation in family structures, crises in public education, antagonistic political division, public moral militancy, and widespread stress and anxiety within a hectic pace of life now taken for granted. These, too, are our lives in the time of John Paul II.
No wonder almost every picture we have of him at prayer shows his face not in repose but with a grimace. He has been a pope of our times and of the pressures of the lives of us all. But always from that prayer and from his faith he has spoken, from beginning to end, a clear, firm, steadying word of moral guidance and spiritual encouragement. Where he stood was always clear. He stood as a “magnetic north” in relation to which we chose the directions of our lives. Just knowing where he stood steadied us in unsteady times.
More than anything else, John Paul II loved being with young people. They knew he loved them. He knew what they were looking for was hope. The young are the barometers of our times in the life of this pope. If, at the start of his pontificate, the portrait of that era’s college student was called “When Dreams and Heroes Died,” the portrait 20 years later, presented again by Arthur Levine in collaboration with Jeanette Cureton, is pointedly called “When Hope and Fear Collide.”
Young people report that they live in a world permeated by fear, which a Seattle University student explained to me is better described by the feeling that “anything can happen and probably will!” Nevertheless, they are a newly hopeful generation, trusting from their experience of personal, voluntary care for others, that they will make a difference in our world. For them, “dreams and heroes” have not “died.” John Paul II is their hero because he is for them the pope of hope. His legacy may be more in our children than in ourselves, more in their lives than ours.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II went to Hiroshima to pray for peace. He made his voice “the voice of the victims of all wars and violence among individuals and nations … the voice of all children who suffer when people put their faith in weapons and war.” He spoke “for the multitudes, in every country and in every period of history, who do not want war and are ready to walk the road of peace.” He concluded his prayer, “O God, hear my voice and grant unto the world your everlasting peace.”
Three months later, an assassin tried to silence that voice of peace, but failed.
It remained his final prayer. The most evoking image for me of John Paul II showed him a few months ago at his window in the Vatican with a child on each side of him trying to release two doves of peace into St. Peter’s Square — where he began his ministry to “our world.” The doves would not fly away but headed back into the papal apartment. The children delightedly retrieved them for him. Again he tried to release them, but back they came. So with a wave of his hand and a laugh he gave up.
All of us, with the children of the world, pray that peace has come back to this pope who made known to us our world and for a time so represented the meaning of our lives that we mourn and celebrate something about ourselves in his passing.
The Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, a Jesuit, is president of Seattle University.