John Paul's Final Bow


In a way, the last year of John Paul's pontificate is ending now.

The close of Year of the Eucharist is John Paul's final bow.

When faced with the abuse scandals, many critics complained that Pope John Paul II was asleep at the wheel. Catholic and secular critics complained that while the Church's good name was being dragged through the mud by errant priests, crony bishops and rabid reporters, the Pope was busy writing about the Rosary and Sunday Mass.

But the Pope had seen the scandals coming long before the Boston Globe did, because he knew that they were just one symptom of a much deeper crisis. The real crisis was a crisis of faith. It manifested itself in a denial of the sense of sin. Before it was in the headlines, that denial was already clear in a near-stoppage of the sacrament of confession in many places. It was there in the high divorce rate that made the Catholic population indistinguishable from the world around us. It was there in the epidemic among Catholic laity of the ultimate child abuse: abortion.

The Pope didn't need scandal stories to tell him what was going on. He was already on the case, leading the Church on a spiritual program that resembled a retreat and had the same aims as one.

First, there were the years of preparation that culminated in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. Early on in the Jubilee came the confession portion of the retreat — John Paul's mea culpa address in which he sought atonement for past sins of the Church.

Some complained that the Pope was just jumping on the apology bandwagon that had made its rounds through many other spheres of society. In fact, John Paul was teaching us lessons that we began to appreciate more fully when the scandal tsunami hit two years later.

He was telling us that sin in the Church today is no fluke. The Church has always been made up of sinners. Our job isn't to deny the sin or to cover it up, but to acknowledge it and expose it to the light of God's mercy.

Next in our retreat came a months-long meditation on our vocations as Christians. There was the Jubilee for the priesthood, for bishops, for the laity. Then, nearly every conceivable subgroup of Catholic had its day at St. Peter's — circus performers, soldiers, pizza makers, lawyers.

John Paul was reminding us that the Church isn't simply a collection of sinners doing penance. In its many vocations, it displays the glories of God and the possibilities of grace. It was vital encouragement for the years to come.

Each year after that had its part in this “retreat.” In 2001, the focus was on apostolic action. He told us to “put out into the deep” per Luke 5:4 and gave the Church a specific program of action. We are to promote Sunday Mass, confession, prayer and service.

The Year of the Rosary followed in 2002-2003. Any good retreat ends with a celebration of the Eucharist. John Paul gave us the 2004-2005 Year of the Eucharist — and then, halfway through it, he exited in such a way that the Eucharistic focus he saw as the key to the Church's future would bridge his pontificate with the next one.

In his first television interview as Pope on Oct. 16, Benedict XVI reflected on where Pope John Paul II had left the Church, and how we are to go forward.

He said of his predecessor, “No one else in the world, on an international level, can speak in the name of Christianity like this and give voice and strength to the Christian reality in the world today.”

John Paul is his guide, he said. “The Pope is always close to me through his writings: I hear him and I see him speaking, so I can keep up a continuous dialogue with him,” Benedict said.

“This nearness to him isn't limited to words and texts, because behind the texts I hear the Pope himself,” he said. “A man who goes to the Lord doesn't disappear. I believe that someone who goes to the Lord comes even closer to us; and I feel he is close to me and that I am close to the Lord.”

As the Year of the Eucharist ends, and as Pope Benedict XVI concludes the Eucharistic synod that Pope John Paul II planned, we should follow the new Pope's example. The legacy of Pope John Paul II isn't in the past, but in the future. And it isn't his alone. It will be filled out by Pope Benedict, and will succeed or fail depending on our response.

He taught us to acknowledge the Church's sins, but to remember Christ's mercy. He taught us not to spend so much time on the defensive, but to build Christ's Kingdom in the world.

And he taught us that the Rosary and the Eucharist are the secret weapons that will transform the Church's story from sin and sorrow to triumph and joy.