Thursday, April 07, 2005

Encomium to Popes John Paul I and II

News of the Pope's death, his funeral arrangements, the reading of his last will and testament, paeans to his life in the mainstream press, throngs of mourners descending on Rome from all over the world, jockeying by members of Congress to be included in the official U.S. delegation to his funeral --- it has all caught me in between two states of mind, I and II.

John Paul II was high priest of the Catholic church for much of my life, and will retain a place in my mind somewhere between entertaining media figure (video scenes of the Popemobile) and principled politician (his strong opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq). I agreed with his pronouncements probably half the time; the other half I found antithetical to the progress of a modern world. And, unfortunately for many of us who live in the developing world where papal pronouncements are taken as the Word of God, his dogmatic positions were probably quite destructive, especially in the areas of individual rights and the fight against AIDS.

As a young teenager, upset with a beauty and goodness that had seemed to abandon America sometime around 1974, I distinctly remember being disappointed when John Paul II ascended the throne in '78. I'd already been captivated by the humility exhibited by John Paul I in his short and reluctant reign as king. He was a humble Northern Italian man who for some reason I thought might bring some beauty and goodness back to me --- if only in the form of tolerance for other world religions and individual free will. Alas, he died suddenly of a heart attack only 33 days into his papacy, and the compromise that had led to his ascension was nullified by the conservative wing of the church in the personage of John Paul II.

Here was a guy from Poland, completely opaque to me as a young American on the other side of the Iron Curtain, taking over for a kind Italian man whom I thought embodied the best of Europe's qualities of enlightened thought. But, who could've known then that a divided Europe would open itself up so widely in the coming decades? To the point where John Paul II would no longer seem like just another beaten-down, paranoid guy from Eastern Europe?

Well, he kept his religion beaten-down and paranoid, but at least he got out there in the world and met some real people, and for that I am grateful. By doing that he made us all come a little closer together in some small way.

So, after all the moneyed religions of the world end up fighting themselves into oblivion, we'll still have the memory of that Polish dude who you could actually hang out with, even though he had some pretty seriously misguided religious beliefs. I shed a tear for the disrespect he showed the modern world, but another one for the legacy of his personal friendship to the wider world.


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