To see Pope John Paul II is to see Christ.
Of that, I have no doubt. I had the fortune of observing him for a week in Toronto.
How is it, I wondered, that a man they have never met could move so many people to tears? A cult of personality alone cannot account for all the tears I witnessed being shed in Toronto.
Certainly, there is much to admire. The Holy Father's childhood and vocation amidst the ravages of war. His prayer life. His canonization of more saints than any other Pope in history. His love of the youth. His dedication to Vatican II. And the encyclicals, his gift to the Church.
Yet, most of Toronto's tears came from the unexpected moments. The Holy Father is a man full of surprises.
The crying eyes were evident upon John Paul's arrival in Toronto, as he slowly and unexpectedly walked down the airplane's stairs with minimal assistance. A young girl, one of the first to meet the Pope, burst out in tears. The Prime Minister's wife had tears streaming down her face, and there were no dry eyes even in the media pool.
There were tears as the Holy Father blessed a group of mentally handicapped people from his boat on Lake Simcoe, even from those watching the event with binoculars from a distant shore.
There were tears among the youth and the religious gathered to welcome the Pope.
On July 27, he was scheduled to meet with Canada's politicos. Along his way, he saw a group gathered at the fence at Morrow Park. There, he stopped his vehicle to greet them, where a 2-year-old girl was brought to him. He kissed and blessed her. And again, there were tears.
Following July 25's evening welcoming ceremony, several people ran up to the popemobile as it was departing from the exhibition grounds. The Holy Father, in response, lowered his window. According to Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Pope's spokesman, a security guard asked, “Does the Pope know what he is doing?” to which Navarro-Valls responded, “He knows exactly what he is doing.”
From where does the Holy Father get his strength? We might be tempted, in this case, to say that he gets it from the youth, and this, in part, would be true. Karol Wojtyla has always enjoyed spending time with the young. As a priest and bishop he frequently went camping with them.
Yet, he has another source for his strength as well. He frequently writes before the Blessed Sacrament. He attends confession weekly, and prayer has worn out his knees. This other source of power was clearly visible during Sunday's Mass, and this source is apparent any time he is shown with his papal crosier — bearing an image of the crucified Christ at its top. It's a picture we're all familiar with.
When he is standing, the Holy Father often uses his crosier to prop up his ailing body. It is a metaphor for everything for which the Pope stands. We see the Holy Father literally leaning on Christ, both physically and spiritually.
As pope, he is not only the father of World Youth Day, but a father for all Catholic Christians. His role as a priest, he reminds us simply by his presence, is one of service — service to Christ and his Church.
In the end, we see a man, picking up his cross — the sufferings of old age, limited mobility, and Parkinson's disease — and carrying it with dignity for all the world to see.
“Be Not Afraid,” the Holy Father said at his inauguration, and it is obvious to all who see him that he is not afraid of growing old before our eyes.
This, then, is what the young respond to so enthusiastically. He is what he is asking the young to be — salt and light. He is a sign of contradiction.
So what accounts for the tears for a man that most have never met? I'm not certain I can say. For there I was, standing near the stage on July 25, in the presence of the Holy Father, weeping along with the rest of them.
To read, to listen to, or to see Pope John Paul is to be reminded of another man that has changed our lives, in spite of the fact that we have never met him — a man just like us in all ways but sin, who lived and died for each one of us 2,000 years ago.
Then again, we have met him, haven't we? We meet him each time we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament. How appropriate, then, that the Holy Father is at work on his 14th encyclical.
The subject? The Eucharist.
As he said during Sunday's homily, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” Truly, to see John Paul is to see Christ.
Tim Drake wrote this in Toronto.