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A Perfect Priest

John Paul II’s excellence as a pastor is what made him a great pope 

By Rabbi Marc Gellman


April 6 - The monumental pile of words and talk that have followed his death, like dry leaves skittering in the wind, have mostly missed the point. They are words for the death of a pope, and surely he was a pope. But Karol Wojtyla did not take up his vocation to be a pope, he took up his vocation to become a priest. Most of these cascading visual and verbal tributes have focused with the longest lenses on his transformative impact on the history of the world and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot gainsay any of those encomiums. Pope John Paul II was obviously one of the greatest world leaders of the past quarter century. But to me at least, the greatest achievement of Karol Wojtyla was that he was a perfect priest.

Perhaps I feel this way because my best friend is a priest. His name is Tom Hartman. For 18 years we have been the God Squad. It is because of this friendship that I see and feel the death of Pope John Paul II in a different way than most of the commentators, theologians and historians who have all lined up to say the very same things in different words. For me, his life and his death are about the life and death of priests; the lives they live, the sacrifices they make, the faith they must witness every single day in our broken and secular world. Watching Tommy work and pray and triumph and be defeated over all these years we have been friends has given me an inside look at the world’s strangest and, I believe, most noble job. So my eulogy for Pope John Paul II really has nothing to do with his big life and big achievements but of his little achievements every day as a priest—both before and after he became pope. I believe that his piety and love and courage as a priest are not merely addenda to his grand achievements. I think his excellence as a priest is the most important reason for his grand achievements.

First and most fundamentally, a priest must teach people not to be afraid. Priests, like all clergy folk, try to teach people not to fear death—either their own or the death of those they love more than life itself. Teaching hope and courage came naturally to this priest. He taught it to his anti-Nazi Polish friends during the kingdom of night, and he taught it to the last moment of his life as he faced his own illness. This teaching of hope is the essential teaching of all faiths. Not all religions believe in God or in one God. But all religions believe in hope. Mordecai Kaplan wrote, “It is hell to live without hope and religion saves people from hell.” This personal teaching of hope writ large explains how John Paul could help bring down the Soviet empire without a single rifle or bomb. His message to his countrymen in Poland in 1979 was the same message he delivered for years as a priest to individual penitents in Poland: you have nothing to fear. He told them that they could defeat the Soviet Union because they had nothing to fear. He was right not because it was time for the Soviet empire to collapse. He was right because they believed him, and they believed him because he was a perfect priest.

There is a time when most adults, including adult clergy, lose touch with what makes children perfect. Perhaps it is cynicism or perhaps the loss of innocence, but many adults end up having a range of emotional reactions to children ranging from annoyance to panic. There are, however, some adults and some priests who have protected a part of themselves that has remained from their childhood—spontaneous, naturally pious and innocent. Into his 80s, Pope John Paul II was as natural and charismatic with children as any twenty-something we hire to run our youth groups. He loved children because he loved innocence and clarity. Yes he could write abstract philosophical phenomenology, but his best moments were in front of children. It is good to remember what an accomplishment this is for a man sworn to forsake the creation of a family of his own. In this priest the vow of celibacy seemed less a burden than an opportunity for greater love, enabling him to open himself up to the youth of the world, who could love in return that part of him that had never completely surrendered to the spiritual corrosions of adulthood. The sacrifice of a personal family was joyously compensated by his ability to enter millions of families with the innocent and loving power of his soul. Many priests do this with great effort and loneliness. Because he was a perfect priest, did this as a natural and effortless expression of his overflowing love.

Once, just after World War II, a mother came to a priest and told him that she had a Jewish baby given to her by parents who were later murdered at Auschwitz. She wanted to know if it was religiously proper to have the child baptized and raise him as a Catholic. The priest ordered the woman to look for the closest Jewish relative of that baby boy and return the child to his family and to Judaism. Karol Wojtyla was that priest. A theologian probably would have baptized the baby. A run-of-the-mill Polish priest of the 1930s definitely would have baptized the baby. But because he was a perfect priest he never thought twice about bringing a lost sheep home to its wounded flock. And because he loved Jews and had many Jewish friends and even played goalie on a Jewish soccer team, he was able to deliver the message of Vatican II and its encyclical Nostra Aetate, which was brought to life by the perfect priest Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII. John Paul II took the poison of anti-Semitism out of the church because he had first taken it out of himself. He did not permit the teaching of contempt for my people as a pope because he did not allow it as a perfect priest.

The greatest religious leader in the world now is the Dalai Lama and he never describes himself as the 14th incarnation of the Buddha. He just refers to himself as a simple Buddhist monk. Gandhi was the same way, and so was Mother Teresa, and so was Pope John Paul II the Great. May God receive his soul among the holy and the righteous and among the souls of all the other perfect priests who have not given us answers as much as they have allowed us the privilege of watching them live their way into the answer.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved