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'John Paul II will leave us all orphans. I shall miss him'

By Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

John Paul II's papacy was a daring attempt to communicate to an ever more global world what it means to be a human being created by God. Conscious always of the drama of salvation, he demonstrated by his word and example the implications of the Gospel for all humanity.

He was a man of many gifts who was endowed with great offices: he was a poet, playwright, actor, philosopher, priest, archbishop and cardinal. But it is as the 263rd successor of St Peter that history will remember him. His 26-year-long papacy - apart from St Peter only one other pope, Pius IX, ruled for longer - spanned an era and breached the new millennium. He was, simply, one of the most remarkable leaders of the Catholic Church in its 2,000-year history - a giant in a global age. He will leave us all orphans.


‘Extraordinarily courageous’

From the very beginning he was a remarkable personality, unafraid to express himself. He was a master of the striking image, the symbolic moment, the dramatic scene. His call to the world to "Open the Door to Christ" was a powerful introduction in 1978. At the time, he was little known. There was a sense of, "who is this man from the East"?

Over the next quarter of a century, he answered that question. He was seen by more people than anyone in history: a figure in white preaching freedom and dignity to some of the largest crowds ever assembled. He was the catalyst of a great peaceful revolution: history will place him alongside St Francis of Assisi as one of the great witnesses to the power of the word over that of the sword.

He was a Polish nationalist, the first Slav Pope who helped to realise his nation's historic dream of a state, yet lived most of the later part of his life in the Vatican. From there, with increasing difficulty as old age and disease enfeebled him, he conducted endless forays into the world, the first successor of St Peter in the modern age to act more like St Paul.

He was above all extraordinarily courageous. A man of deep prayer, he had a conviction of God's providence running through his life, a conviction reinforced by a number of narrow brushes with death. It was a conviction that led him to cling on to the papacy long after it appeared apt to some observers to do so. In the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium, he was no longer the energetic man of action, the "white tornado" of the 1980s, but became an icon of suffering, putting on display all the indignities of infirmity in order to show the God-given dignity within. Another man might have resigned, but the Pope felt very deeply that his life was a providential choice by God to be lived for the Church - until the moment God called him to his reward.

The Pope became, in his weakness, identified with vulnerability. The last time I met him was in Lourdes, in August last year. There was a moving moment when a wheelchair-bound young man was brought forward to receive a blessing. The two men in wheelchairs gazed at each other wordlessly - the Pope and the pilgrim at one in that moment, in their shared humanity. The message in Lourdes was the same as it had been in Poland in 1979: God has created every human person with an innate human dignity, which neither totalitarianism nor physical degradation could suffocate. The Pope's defence of that dignity took him first to the East, to face down the evils of Communism; then to the developing world, to plead for the poor; and lastly to the West, to confront the erosion of dignity presented by consumerism, individualism and the subjection of people to technology.

The first time I met him was in 1975, when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. I was Rector of one of the English seminaries in Rome at the time and hosted a lunch for cardinals attending the synod that year. I remember him sitting opposite me in the college dining room; as we spoke, I was struck by his energy and intelligence. He seemed strong, self-contained, humorous. I was very impressed, and told another guest that night that Cardinal Wojtyla seemed to me papabile, as potential popes are known.

About a week later, he invited me, along with some English-speaking bishops, to the Polish Centre for a reception. After half an hour of mingling and general conversation, a rich baritone voice suddenly broke out - Cardinal Wojtyla was singing a Polish song. The other Poles joined in and we had a sing-song. I gathered together the English-speaking bishops - British, Americans, Irish, Australians - and tried to find a song we could reply with. We managed, I think, The Rose of Tralee. The Poles listened politely, then Cardinal Wojtyla began another song. It struck me that here was a man who enjoyed people, was easy with people and not afraid, among his fellow bishops, to start a sing-song. That was the first impression and now, after the end of this epic papacy, it remains with me as an abiding image of his humanity. He was elected Pope in 1978. I had been made bishop the previous year, and met him on repeated occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. I saw more of him all those years ago than I did after being made a cardinal in 2001 (I remember when I got my red hat, he held my hand and said: "Westminster - very important").

But, of course, the meeting that sticks most strongly in my mind was the Pope's visit to Britain in 1982. As the Bishop of the diocese where he landed (Gatwick Airport is in Arundel and Brighton), it fell to me to enter his plane to welcome him. I found him sitting there, very tense; Britain was at war with Argentina, and his visit had for a time risked being postponed (the Pope went shortly afterwards to Argentina, to show that he was taking no sides). But if he had feared rotten eggs, he was soon reassured: thousands had turned out to greet him and there were cheers and warmth wherever he went. He had to meet all the notables, but it was clear that he was anxious to break away and greet people. My aunt was in the crowd - she was about 85, a nun - and I kept pointing her out to him, saying "That's my aunt!", but I'm not sure he understood.

The visit was a huge success. The weather was fantastic, the crowds joyful, the ceremonies remarkable. I went every-where with him for the first three days of his stay and joined him in Cardiff for the youth gathering. How he managed it all, in terms of sheer pace, was extra-ordinary. When I went out to Rome, about a fortnight after the Pope's visit, I went to see a cardinal who had spoken to him two days after his return. "Normally I walk to his desk," the cardinal told me, "but this time the Holy Father came out towards me and said: 'You know, Eminence, that trip to Britain was the best yet of all my visits.' "

He loved Scotland - the Scots, like the Poles, greeted him as their champion. When they sang Will He No Come Back Again?, the Pope turned to the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Thomas Winning, to ask what the song was about. Archbishop Winning explained that this was a traditional Scottish song that looked forward to the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie. "Oh," said the Pope, deadpan, "I think I met his mother two days ago."

He had a great respect for English and Welsh bishops. Britain and Poland, of course, always had a special relationship; we would often talk about sport, for example; and there was a natural bond. Britain, of course, is terra oecumenica. The Pope's heart in the ecumenical movement was with the Orthodox, but he valued relations with the Anglican Church. He was, however, disappointed by recent developments and once, on being introduced to a theologian at one of our Anglican-Catholic gatherings, the Pope turned to him and said: "No - women - priests!" None the less, his personal relations with Anglican leaders were very warm. I was fortunate to be present at the meeting between the Pope and Archbishop Rowan Williams in September 2003 - a very moving occasion.

Pope John Paul was an extraordinarily complex man and, as such, is very hard to pigeon-hole. He was unshakeable in so many of his convictions, yes, because he had deep beliefs as a Catholic Christian which he felt it his duty to preach in season and out. But he was not rigid, or constrained by tradition. He could be extraordinarily radical in the way he reached out across the boundaries of faith and ideology to appeal to the humanity in all people.

He was not exactly a pacifist, for example, but near to it. Here was a man who preached peace in a very strong, direct way. He was an extraordinary, wonderful mixture and it would not do - not at all - to characterise Pope John Paul as a rigid conservative. He was open to the whole reality and mystery of the universe and human beings.

I think this Pope had an understanding of his mission to be a beacon in the world in a way perhaps different to his predecessors. He was an extremely private man yet was willing and able and, in fact, anxious to be a universal evangelist, to share his deepest convictions on a world stage because that was what God had called him to do. He had a feeling that he was a Pope for all people and he had the strength to do that. The invitations that came for him to visit were always welcome and those he accepted to places such as Cuba or even the Holy Land were very significant.

He had longed for many years to go to the Holy Land. Here was a man who was a reconciler, a man who had his own strong beliefs but was open to those of other faiths. That particular visit in 2000, though, was not only a political one, it was also a personal one. He wanted to go where Jesus Christ had lived and died and risen again. This was the source, nurturing his faith. These were the words of the Bible and the place where it happened.

The Pope was a philosopher. He reflected, he thought. He was always willing to learn and to listen. I know when I met him - and other people have said the same - he didn't speak the whole time but listened courteously. He had a deep understanding of the human person and what makes a human being. He was well versed in all the great philosophers who studied human nature and the universe. His philosophy always came back to the same core understanding of the dignity of the human person. All questions that enhance the human condition ultimately command theological questions: What are we made for? What is the purpose of our being? Assuming, as he did, a creative God, there is a meaning for each one of us.

He thought a lot about social issues. He came from Poland, a nation behind the Iron Curtain that had known unimaginable horrors. His early life, particularly during and after the war, was one of hardship, in common with his people. The fact that he had been down into the valley of suffering - he was an orphan by the age of 20 - prepared him spiritually, made him self-contained by knowing his dependence on God and Providence. It moulded him so that when he became a bishop, then a cardinal and eventually a Pope he was a rock-like person. He was moulded not just by his teaching but by the events of his life. That made him what he was. And as the Pope he spoke about these issues based on his own experiences clearly and distinctly. It had a profound effect. Future historians will be able to see, much more clearly than I can, the effect his historic return to his native land had in the breakdown of Communism in Eastern Europe. But while I think the Pope will be remembered for being a world evangelist, his legacy will be seen less in his great travels than in his teaching.

He will leave behind a massive corpus of teaching that the Church will be unpacking far into the future. He showed the world that there are objective truths that should form our life and our behaviour, truths which begin from a recognition of God's sovereignty. Today's world says that truth is relative, that truth can be, as it were, shaped to each person. But the Pope set his face against that idea: he proclaimed objective moral truths. His social teaching and his teaching about the Gospel of life and about the universality of certain moral truths is tremendously important.

It is fascinating that the Pope was always so compelling to young people. It is they, particularly, who saw and admired his courage and his inner freedom. From the beginning, it was as if he said, "this is how I'm going to live my papacy" and was not constrained by others people's ideas of what that should look like. He wrote his encyclicals with the energy and daring of a philosopher, one who testified to a great freedom to be who and what he thought he should be. Young people seek authentic freedom and that is what they saw in the Pope - a free man.

Young people also want to be challenged. I was present on many occasions when Pope John Paul met hundreds of thousands - and, on one occasion, millions - of young people. He took a very strong, no-nonsense approach to them, saying in a straightforward manner, "come and follow Jesus Christ, don't be afraid of hardship". He invited young people to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and they responded with enthusiasm.

His was a rare and great rapport with young men and women the likes of which few popes in the past century managed to achieve. In his private life he would occasionally go and meet young people and sing with them like any ordinary person and they loved him for that. He always had a joke and was not afraid to laugh with them.

That is why I think one of the most abiding images of this papacy will be the last one: the tens of thousands of young people who have gathered in St Peter's Square below the papal apartments to hold continuing vigil in recent days. The reporters were astonished at the stillness that has supervened. But it was typical. John Paul II preached before enthusiastic crowds, but he also led them into silence and contemplation. He was always the still centre, who radiated the serenity that comes from a life of prayer.

He was an awesome figure. But he was also a very down-to-earth man, with a good sense of humour, who enjoyed being teased. I remember one lunch he attended at the English retreat house near Rome, Palazzola, which looks across to the papal summer residence at Castelgandolfo. The then rector of the English College asked him: "Holy Father, when you're shaving in the morning and you look across the lake, do you think about us?" The Pope thought for what seemed a very long time, before declaring, with a mischievous smile: "No. Not often."

I will miss him.

• Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is the Archbishop of Westminster




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved