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A picture of Pope John Paul II sits at the base of the pulpit at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver, Friday, April 1, 2005. (CP Photo/Richard Lam)
The lasting legacy of John Paul II
 

Fr. Daniel Donovan, April 2005

The death of a pope, especially the death of a pope as well known and widely loved as John Paul II cannot help but touch us at a deep level. Death is always difficult - difficult for the person who is dying, obviously, but difficult also for those who care about him, who are close to him, who love him. Life is a precious gift, one that is not easily given up.

John Paul II's health was deteriorating for some time. There can be no doubt that he was aware that he was about to die. As a deeply religious, deeply spiritual person, he saw death not simply as the end of life but as a passageway into a new life, a life in God.

A week before he died, Christians celebrated the most important feast of the year, Easter. It commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus. The two events belong together, they are seen as two sides, two aspects of a single event, called the paschal mystery. Christians see it as a saving act of God on our behalf. They also understand it as a revelation of their own destiny. Christians die in the hope of being caught up with Christ into the fullness of life. We are told that the Pope had the story of the death of Jesus read to him as he lay on his deathbed. In Luke's account of that story, Jesus dies with the prayer: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." This pope clearly learned in the course of his life to make those sentiments his own. He learned, perhaps especially through his suffering, to abandon himself in trust into the Holy Mystery which surrounds and permeates our lives and which religious people call God.

As we reflect on the Pope's dying we cannot help but reflect on his legacy. It will continue to be with us and to inspire and challenge us for some time.

It was more than 26 years ago that he was elected the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. He was also the first Slavic pope. Both of these facts helped to mark his papacy and to open up new possibilities for the papacy in the future.

John Paul has had an enormous impact on the Catholic Church and on the broader world. His more the 100 foreign trips made him the most visible pope in history. He came to Canada three times and each time was seen and heard by large numbers of Canadians. During his 12-day trip in 1984, he came across as an energetic and charismatic figure capable of reaching out to people of all faiths and backgrounds. By the time of his trip to Toronto for World Youth Day in the summer of 2002, he had become old and frail and clearly not in good heath. And yet the response of the young people to him was enthusiastic and full of love and respect.

John Paul had a profound influence in Poland and on the dramatic events that took place there in the 1980s. His 1979 visit strengthened the Polish people and gave a new impulse to the Solidarity Movement. There can be no doubt of the significant contribution he made to the evolution of Eastern Europe and to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

John Paul wrote a great deal. He was a poet and philosopher as well as a serious theologian. In addition to his numerous official publications, he did what no pope had done before: he published poetry and highly personal books during his pontificate. His other publications touched on every aspect of Church life as well as a broad range of social and ethical issues. Much of the material remains as a rich resource for the Church, one that will certainly not be exhausted in a short time.

John Paul took over the leadership of the Catholic Church at a moment of apparent drift. The enthusiasm generated by the Second Vatican Council was giving way to a growing polarization in the Church. There was a feeling among many bishops that the Church was losing its way. This was heightened by the obvious crisis of identity that was being undergone in the 1970s by many priests, especially in the Western world. In the face of this situation, John Paul offered clear and firm leadership. He committed himself to a systematic implementation of the council but in a way that would be ordered and disciplined and in continuity with the past history of the Church. In this regard he is leaving the Catholic Church with a far clearer sense of itself and its mission than it had when he began his pontificate.

The Pope's legacy, however, is much broader than the Catholic community. He continued the work of the Council in the area of Christian ecumenism and made a special effort to reach out to Eastern Christianity and especially the Orthodox Churches. It was probably one of his major disappointments that greater rapprochement with them could not be achieved in his lifetime.

John Paul also had a special interest in renewing relations between Catholics and Jews. It was rooted in friendships from the time of his youth in Poland and was nurtured by his horror at the senseless brutality of the Holocaust. He wrote and spoke on this topic repeatedly and performed the kind of public symbolic acts that brought his concerns to the public at large. He was the first pope to visit the Synagogue in Rome and, even more dramatically, he prayed for forgiveness at the temple wall in Jerusalem.

John Paul was the first pope to gather leaders of all the great religious traditions at Assisi to pray for peace. In this and other ways he helped to create a climate of respect and collaboration that will only become more significant in the years to come.

For many people, John Paul has been a moral and religious leader of great courage as well as of great stature. His vision of human life and its dignity led him to do whatever he could to defend and foster it wherever he thought it was under attack. For many people, Christian and non-Christian, he became the most visible and articulate spokesperson on the world's stage for a coherent ethics of life. His message was reinforced by the obvious integrity and commitment that marked his life from beginning to end.

Fr. Daniel Donovan is a professor of theology at St. Michael's College (University of Toronto) in Toronto.

 

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