Sunday 27 April 2014

John Paul II (1920-2005): Reminiscences

I share something I wrote years ago, when John Paul II had just died.

Pope John Paul II died on 2 April 2005 after a papacy covering over 26 years. For most young people, he is the only Pope they have ever known. Many beautiful and moving tributes have been and will be written about this great Pope. Let me add a little personal note to this chorus.
 I have not always liked this Pope. As a young Catholic seminarian, I struggled to enter into the Catholic faith and to find my place in the Church. When John Paul II made his first trip to India, I was a student in Kristu Jyoti College, which is the theological seminary run by the Salesians of Don Bosco in Bangalore. The College had organized a trip to Chennai to see the Pope. Some of my companions and I decided not to go along. We felt that we had to show our solidarity with our employees and so many others who could not afford to make the trip. But maybe, somewhere in the background, there was also a slight disdain for the Pope. He was too conservative. He did not understand liberation theology and birth control and the real needs of people.
 I was sent to Rome for a Ph.D. in philosophy just when the first Gulf War was about to begin. The daily appeals of the Pope to both Bush and Saddam were an eye-opener to me. I realized then the power of the media: none of the papers reported his appeals, except the Avvenire which was the Italian Bishops’ paper, and of course the Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican paper. The thought crept into my mind: could it be that my opinions about this Pope, and so many other opinions, were based on a one-sided, skewed coverage? Whatever. But there was no denying the fact that in the community of Testaccio where I was living, the only ones who were openly against the war were us Indians – and the Pope. Even the Pope’s Vicar chose to maintain a studied silence. This was, perhaps, the turning point in my relationship to John Paul II, the beginning of a life-long admiration.
 My first papal audience was amusing. I was doing an Italian course at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. I had just picked up some German, and so became friendly with the German Salesians attending the course. They turned up for the audience in shirt sleeves, and teased me good-naturedly when they saw me in my Roman collar. “We did not know that you were devoted to this Polish Pope,” they said. We went to the Sala Nervi. We had seats that were quite far from the aisle. After the audience, John Paul moved down the aisle, as was his custom. I suddenly became aware that the seats next to me were empty. The German Salesians were standing on the seats near the aisle, frantically trying to reach out and to touch the Pope. The Pope did such things to people.
 During my three and a half year stay in Rome, I was fortunate to meet the Pope on several occasions. In the Sala Clementina he asked me whether I was from Kerala. I knew then that he was not infallible. No, I said, I was from Goa. Oh, Goa, he said, Yes, I remember Goa very well. The last time I saw him was once again in the Sala Nervi, but this time I was right in the very front row, thanks to the influence of Don Giacomo Tagliabue. I found myself inexplicably moved during the audience, and when the Pope came round to shake hands, I could not control my tears. He had that kind of gift. I remember seeing pictures of the World Youth Day in Denver, the camera passing over little groups of young people sitting all over the site, many of them simply weeping.
 The other image I carry is of the Pope at prayer. I was fortunate to be allowed to join him at Mass in his private chapel. When we were ushered in quietly, he was already at his prie-dieu, praying. What was remarkable was that he was praying with loud groans and sighs that day. Did he always pray like that? I do not know. But those were the days of the Balkan war, and the thought crossed my mind: he is praying for his people, and he suffers with them.
 During my years in Rome, I used to help out as chaplain of a group of young people who were part of the Catholic Scouting Movement (AGESCI). Every weekly meeting included a moment of catechesis. In my first year, the book I was using was Tony De Mello’s Song of the Bird. To my great astonishment, the stories invariably fell flat. The youngsters would often end up discussing, together with the theological ants, the size and location of the sting in the ants heaven. I abandoned Tony and took up the Gospel of Mark and some of the teachings of the Pope. They did not always like what they were hearing, but they understood it - like Herod, who did not like what John the Baptist was saying, but nonetheless listened eagerly to him. I realize that Tony was engaged in questioning ossified traditions and ways of thinking. But the young people of Rome had nothing to be pulled down. They were practically blank slates as far as traditional Christianity was concerned. They were virgin soil. The gospel and the Pope made sense.
 What was it about John Paul II that was able to electrify crowds of thousands and tens of thousands? What was the secret of that extraordinary charisma? Why was it that young people flocked to him? How was he able to establish the most extraordinary connections with people who were otherwise quite different from him, like the young communist mayor of Rome, Rutelli? Often I have thought about this, and the thought that comes to me was always: here is a man who believes with all his heart. None of the hesitations for him, no wishy washy statements, no shilly-shallying. He was a man who believed, and he was all there. There seemed to be not a shred of doubt in him. He was not, in that sense, a ‘man of the times.’ He was no post-modern. He was extraordinarily secure and extraordinarily firm. He was a rock. And it seemed to have worked. There was magic in him, as we are hearing time and again these days. Or better, there was simply the powerful attraction of a man who had surrendered everything and who had allowed himself to be totally led by the Spirit.
 John Paul II was without doubt the most popular Pope of our times. But what strikes me is that he did not bend backwards to become popular. He was certainly a master of symbols: kissing new ground, touching people, embracing babies, proclaiming the Great Jubilee. There is much to be learnt from how he went about animating the world. He was one who made full and abundant use of the marvelous modern means of communication to reach out to his worldwide flock and to many more besides. But he never hesitated to teach what might be received as unpopular. He recalled the Church firmly to its basics. He invited the whole Church to holiness.
 Karol Wojtyla’s pastoral heart was rooted in a profound grasp of the mysteries of the Catholic faith and the philosophical issues connected with them, and his writings will continue to keep many generations of scholars busy. It is not yet very well known, for example, that John Paul II made what is probably a significant theological advance. In his Theology of the Body, he proposed a brilliant and bold new analogy for the Holy Trinity. Where Augustine had suggested that we might get some idea of the relationship of Father and Son by studying the procession of the word from the mind, John Paul II suggests that the very love between man and woman, made in the image of God, gives us some inkling of the mystery of the Triune God. The love between man and woman is a desire to be one without loss of individuality. It is a faint and yet powerful symbol of the Trinity. It is the life of God built into our very beings and natures. From this central insight, John Paul goes on to give an entirely new perspective to marriage, to celibacy, to the whole of theology. It is extraordinary to think that the newly elected Pope gave the whole Church a catechesis on the theology of the body every Wednesday for five years.
 The Lord had prepared Karol Wojtyla well for the task of strengthening his brethren. The early years of his life are shrouded in deep suffering. By the age of 18, he had lost all who were dearest to him: his mother, his beloved elder brother, and his father. The joy, the serenity, the deep and unshakeable confidence that marked his years as Pope were forged in the crucible of much suffering. The end of his life was similarly marked by suffering. But this time it was a suffering that was clearly suffused with the light of the Resurrection.
 In death, as in life, John Paul II continues to reach out to millions and to strengthen their faith. In a little read book, the philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan has a wonderful thing to say about the way God operates upon our freedom:             “Indeed, both above and below, both right and left, the free choice has determinants over which it exercises no control. God directly controls the orientation of the will to ends; indirectly He controls the situation which intellect apprehends and in which will has to choose; indirectly He also controls both the higher determinants of intellectu­al attitude or mental pattern and the lower determinants of mood and temperament; finally, each free choice is free only hic et nunc, for no man can decide today what he is to will tomorrow. There is no end of room for God to work on the free choice without violating it, to govern above its self-governance, to set the stage and guide the reactions and give each character its personal role in the drama of life.” [Lonergan, Grace and Freedom 115, emphases added.] John Paul II was one of the ways in which the providence of God reached out and touched me.
 Classical Catholic theology used to speak of the two ‘divine missions.’ In simple words, this meant that God comes to us in two ways: through the Spirit who blows where he will, and is not bound by limits of space and time, and through the Son, who came to us in a particular space and time. The Spirit reaches out to every human being and to all cultures, peoples, times and nations. The Son’s action instead is prolonged in space and time through the Church. The Church, like its founder, is both divine and human; unlike its divine founder, however, it is marked by light as well as darkness. John Paul II was so much part of the light. We have been truly blessed. We can only be grateful to the Father of mercies for having raised up such an extraordinary pastor in our midst.

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