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A Pope Too Good For His Church

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 09, 2001.

One hundred years ago, the Speaker of US House, Thomas Reed, was asked about his reaction to a papal announcement. "The overpowering unimportance of this leaves me speechless," intoned Reed, which was pretty much correct. Until Pope John the XXIII, nobody in memory really thought the Popes were even particularly good people. Until John Paul the II, nobody outside the Curia really cared much what they thought about anything. When the Pope speaks today on, say, the beauty of flowers, no newspaper in the world will ignore it. People, despite themselves, like the man. Respect him.

Whatever one thinks about Pope John Paul II, the chances are that you do think about him more than you would normally consider a Pope. Be you Catholic or not, it is hard to deny the compelling character and charisma of this Polish cleric, in his eighties, bent and slow with Parkinson's disease, but with a strength that sort of embarrasses those of us who can't jog because of a slightly bruised foot or work because of an upset stomach. I have no idea if Christ or Peter ever existed, but if they did, when Christ looked upon Peter and said you're the rock upon whom the church will be built, it takes no effort to imagine that Peter looked a lot like John Paul, if not in skin tone than in intensity and character. To review, John Paul is the first Pope to visit a synagogue and the first Pope to visit a mosque. In two thousand years of pathetic blather about brotherhood, he's the first Pope to take the time to do either. It was never a sin to do either - all three religions worship the same God - but John Paul did it. He is the first in one thousand years to reach out to the fractured and backward Orthodox Church and pray with them. He rightly apologizes for the bovine, juvenile, and sick actions of his forebears, not excluding rape, pillage, desecration, blasphemy, the odd crusade, and the resultant genocide, and he often does so at the sites of these activities, face to face with the descendents of the victims. This takes some courage and integrity, to say no more, and the fact that even the most narrow minded of his critics has difficulty in faulting his actions says a great deal. The fact is, in times past Jews and Muslims and Orthodox - never mind Martin Luther - looked upon the Pope as the Devil himself, a grotesque hypocrite, and a poor substitute for the Christ he claimed to speak for. Nobody thinks that of this Pope, who by his own actions has made the people to whom he apologizes look whiney and self-aggrandizing. Which they often are.

The most recent hubbub occurred in Syria, where the President of that august government used the event of the Pope's arrival to accuse the Israeli state of sins in a manner to please the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was an inappropriate and erroneous speech by a man who surprised few by giving it. There were many who claimed that the Pope did little to offset it, although nobody covered his words as deeply as they did the Syrian President. What was amazing is that religious moderates on all sides, while tempering their praise, are somewhat agog that any of this is happening at all. A united Christianity, which may or may not be a good thing, suddenly seems less ludicrous than twenty years ago. A friendly exchange of opinions between Islam and Judaism and the followers of Paul of Tarsus appears to be on the horizon. Maybe even in focus. I am actually rather amazed that this is a plausible subject for discussion.

John Paul is viewed suspiciously by the Left because of the role he supposedly played in the fall of Communism, although that is generally the opinion of only the most gushing Polish Catholic rah-rah types. He is socially very conservative, and I think totally wrong on many issues. Nonetheless, nobody in our lifetime - not excluding Gandhi, Martin King, or anyone - has done more to utilize good will and appeal to the best in people everywhere. You can tell by the way everyone behaves around him. They use him, yes, but there is the element of the preening child about heads of state in his presence. Everybody wants his respect. The penultimate father figure.

We have seen the Pope at mosque, synagogue, Wailing Wall, Protestant and Orthodox Church, embracing the Native Americans whose civilizations his forebears destroyed, and everywhere he forgives his enemies and asks forgiveness for the sins of Peter and the Church. There may not be a country in the world he hasn't at least flown over, and he may have visited all of them at one time or another. Your kids will be studying this man someday, and because this is so obviously a historic figure of great import, it wouldn't kill any of us to take a few minutes and acknowledge our good fortune he has graced our times, because he won't be with us much longer and Christ only knows what potential moron may succeed him. It would be silly to think John Paul doesn't imagine a solely Christian world someday, but he clearly hopes it is his truth that will win on an intellectual field of play. Forget world peace, visualize a world where religions respect and study each other, entertain the possibility of human error, and cause no wars. Eh? This Pope does. Who'd a thunk it?