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The Face of the Church   

J. FRASER FIELD

As the media reflected and in many cases reflected quite movingly on the greatness of the Holy Father, on his immense accomplishments as a leader of intelligence, principle, and unwavering determination, as a man of remarkable moral courage and conviction, they managed to miss the most important truths about the life and witness that was Pope John Paul II.

 

What was the most remarkable truth about this Pope was the simple fact that there was no gap in him between the Christianity he preached and the life he lived. He was the living embodiment of a fully realized faith in Christ. The source of his strength, and influence, and love was neither his character nor his personality, nor his acting ability; it was the Pascal mystery.

He was the great man he was because he lived each day for the Crucified One. He was what he was because he was in intimate communion through the sacraments of the Church and through a deep mystical prayer life with the immeasurable love of his Savior. He was what he was because he practiced each day, to an extraordinary degree, the death to self that all Christians are called to in order to become vessels for the divine. As a consequence the divine shone magnificently in him.

Even those who had no religion found a Christ presence in him, something they would never have expected and couldn't name or define, something immeasurably beyond the greatness of this great man. Those who encountered him saw it, felt it. Though not all could afford to accept what was implied by it.

Attributing the Pope's greatness to factors of personality or "charisma" or character allows the media to love the man and then later attack his ideas, to be critical of his legacy.

When the newly minted Pope dramatically appeared before millions of his fellow Poles for the first time in 1979 and told them "Be not afraid," the communist leadership the cultural elites of that time and place were terrified. The Pope's presence signaled the beginning of the end for their hold on power and for communism in Europe.

North American elites have worked hard to establish a secular hegemony in the United States and Canada. Along the way they have managed to make Christian voices largely irrelevant to our cultural discussions and have entrenched stereotypes to depict the Catholic Church as a rigid, authoritarian, medieval institution dying of its own calcification and quite unable to speak to the modern experience.

That stereotype was this past week undone.

John Paul II is the bright face of modern Catholicism, a face beautiful to behold, and a face no face of modern secularism can begin to compete with. Perish the thought, but could this beautiful human face, the face of radical Christianity, be the future?

A good friend of mine, a discerning media watcher and Catholic priest, in reflecting on the remarkably positive coverage the Pope has received, predicts that the knives for John Paul and the Church will be unsheathed again within a few weeks.

Of course, it isn't the respect and love shown John Paul II that is a problem for the secular elites any more than it was for Poland's communist overlords in 1979. It is the counter cultural message he preached so boldly and embodied so magnificently.

Behind the face and presence of John Paul was another face and presence. And it is that face which may yet bring an end to the cold and selfish consumerism, the degraded and dehumanizing culture of death which the Holy Father so despised in the west.

What the media can't afford to talk about, but what it is plain to anyone with eyes to see, is that John Paul's so-called "charisma" didn't belong to him. He was a radical disciple of Jesus Christ. His mystical prayer life and deep understanding of the truths of the Catholic faith allowed Christ's own love and "charisma" to become manifest through him. And this is the source and reason for the perplexing phenomenon before us, the tear-filled adulation of millions of people young and old, of all races and religions for this 84 year old Pontiff of what we have been told for decades is a dying institution.

John Paul's project, Christ's own project, did not end with the fall of Soviet communism. With that great fall the real enemy simply came into view and the rest of the Holy Father's life was dedicated to diagnosing and uprooting it. This has been the real project, a project he is surely still actively involved with from beyond this world.

The secular elites have a problem and, after this past week, it will be hard to put the cat back in the bag.

We can no longer believe that the face of modern Catholicism is the face of a fading past; it has been seen by millions; it is full of light and love, grace and hope. It was seen in the face of Pope John Paul II in life and in the faces of the thousands upon thousands who attended his funeral in Rome and attended funeral services in his honor around the world. It was a face wondrous to behold.

 

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