April 22, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Stand up, world, your daddy is passing

The recent death of Pope John Paul II reminded me of a line spoken about the Atticus Finch character in the novel To Kill a Mocking­bird. As Atticus leaves the courtroom where he’s trying to defend a black man in a racist town, someone says to his little girl, “Stand up, Scout. Your daddy is passing.”

Our daddy passed recently, and the whole world stood up in respect. This pope had been leader of the Catholic Church for so long that most of us thought of him as our daddy and could hardly remember his predecessors. Indeed, he seemed to be the father of all thoughtful people throughout the world, religious or not.

When his health failed and he was struggling to carry out his duties, the pope was asked why he didn’t resign and retire. “Does the father of a family ever retire as their father?” he asked. Good answer.

Some of us did not always agree with the pope, which is OK considering that he never made an infallible dogmatic pronouncement. But even when or if we disagreed, we had to admit that he always preached the ideal, which is the true mission of the Church. God calls us to perfection, partly through instruction by the Church, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect. Nor was the pope, as he was the first to admit.

The astonishing worldwide respect for the pope was centered mainly on his efforts to win Eastern Europe away from Godless communism, and back to faith in a loving and merciful God in whose image we’re made.

In doing so, he drove one of the wedges that ultimately caused the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything it represented, including the Soviet Union. And he did it, not by physical force, but by moral authority.

At the time the pope visited Poland and inspired the people to revolt against communism, the papacy was not held in wide regard politically. Somehow, despite the impressive spiritual renewal begun by Pope John XXIII in Vatican II, the role of a pope was considered a kind of irrelevant anachronism in the international scheme of things.

John Paul II changed all that merely by the force of truth. He told the Polish people “Be not afraid” with God as their leader, and they responded. Suddenly, he was a force to be reckoned with worldwide. His messages earned respectful attention.

The pope also turned his attention to equally important human divisions, such as distrust between Jews and Christians, and hostility between Christian denominations. He apologized for past sins of Catholics in these matters, and made many efforts to heal and unite people of all religions. He demonstrated the virtue of forgiveness dramatically when he personally forgave the man who tried to kill him.

In youth, the pope was an admirable figure of a man and a priest—athletic, intelligent, cultured, paternal and indefatigable. In old age, he gave us another example of how to live as a person suffering infirmity, pain and the indignities of old age.

He was indeed the wise father of his family until he died.

This “servant of the servants of God” truly served his God and those for whom he was responsible. We can only pray to follow his example.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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