Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY Janet E. Smith
In his letter marking the close of the Jubilee year, Pope John Paul II wrote, “I have oftenstopped to
look at the long queues of pilgrims waiting patiently to go through the Holy
Door. In each of them I tried to imagine the story of a life, made up of joys,
worries, sufferings; the story of someone whom Christ had met and who in
dialogue with him, was setting out again on a journey of hope.
“As I observed the
continuous flow of pilgrims, I saw them as a kind of concrete image of the pilgrim
Church, the Church placed, as St. Augustine says, ‘amid the persecutions of the
world and the consolations of God.’”
In part, this passage
shows where Pope John Paul II got his energy to write speeches, encyclicals,
letters, exhortations and greetings that fill volumes; to visit more places on
earth than perhaps any other public figure; to be with his flock in endless
long and often tedious ceremonies.
For him, all of this
was an extended love feast; he loved each and every one of us and loved the fact
that we are loved by Christ. Pope John
Paul II was a true Alter Christus; he
wanted to touch us, to be with us, to rejoice with us, to console us, to guide
us and to be inspired by us.
Quite simply, Pope
John Paul II loved life and loved every human person, because he understood the
true meaning of the human drama. When he
looked over a crowd of people, he did not see a sea of humanity, or consumers,
or polluters, or voters. He saw souls — souls that God had willed into
existence and souls that God wants with Him for eternity; souls that are filled
with a longing that only God can satisfy. Each life is infinitely fascinating
and infinitely interesting and infinitely important because it is the story of
a soul’s journey to God.
I sometimes wondered
if, when he looked out over the huge crowds, that amid all his joy, Pope John
Paul II experienced great sorrow at the thought that few people realize how
precious they are to God, how loved they are.
In his Letter to Families, I
found some confirmation of this suspicion in the line: “Man must reconcile
himself to his natural greatness.”
It is profoundly sad
that we don’t realize how great we are.
The greatness of the human person comes from our ability to understand
that we are made in the image and likeness of God and from our freedom to
embrace that reality as a gift and to love the fact God that made us. The greatest responsibility of the human
person, the greatest actualization of his innate dignity, is to live in accord
with the truth — the truth about himself, about the world around him, about
Pope John Paul II
understood that all crimes against life are based on falsehoods; are a misuse
of our freedom; are crimes against God, against the love that God has for each
one of us.
Those who love life
and the reality of the human person wish to live their lives in service of life
and to extend Christ’s love to all. They
will know that “Love is … the fundamental and innate vocation of every human
being.” (Familiaris Consortio, No.
1) The natural place to learn these
truths and these responsibilities is in the family, and Pope John Paul II never
tired of extolling and explaining the importance of the family.
What pained him
greatly about the culture of death in which we live is that the crimes against
life in our times are crimes of mothers and fathers against their unborn
children; of sons and daughters against their ailing parents; of health care
professionals against their patients.
It pained him that we
have become so skeptical, so doubtful about the ability to know the truth, that
we are comfortable calling evil good and good evil. We have developed the habit
of calling crimes “rights” and considering efforts to protect life and to
promote human decency acts of arrogance and intolerance.
When Pope John Paul II
lay dying, a friend asked me how I was handling his death. A few years ago, when I thought of his dying,
I froze with grief. I thought the day he died would be one of the darkest of my
life, since I so admired him and his pontificate. But I responded to my friend
that I was really more joyous than sad, that I thought Pope John Paul II and
God himself seemed to have scripted a most beautiful ending to his life.
The Holy Father had
faced death several times; he survived an assassination attempt and forgave the
assassin. He survived cancer. He went into public with his debilitating
Parkinson’s and made us realize that even when all he could be was present to
us, that presence, sometimes drooling, sometimes silent, was of great
consolation to us.
When Terri Schiavo was
being starved to death, the Holy Father accepted a feeding tube. And then in
his last days, he chose not to go back to the hospital, not to go on a
respirator or kidney dialysis machine or powerful medication. He allowed the
dying process to take over.
Pope John Paul II was
a man with a fierce love of life and will to live. He certainly did not give
up, but he was certainly not afraid of death and he would be right to be
confident that a legion of angels and saints and his beloved Jesus Christ will
be awaiting him with open arms.
He showed us how to
live. He showed us how to suffer. He showed us how to die, and most importantly
he showed us how to love.
Smith is a professor
theology at Sacred Heart
in Detroit, Michigan.
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