Tuesday, April 12, 2005

What We Bury Today: The Death Of John Paul II and What It Means To Me

Okay, I’ve let enough time lapse. When I first heard the news of the passing of Pope John Paul II, I had mixed feelings. I mean I really believe it’s not a good thing to speak ill of the dead, no matter what their political leanings are or what you thought of that person. I just think that invokes bad karma or something. I feel it lessens me.

So how do I sum up what I am feeling in an intelligible manner in a way so that I can disabuse the world of this papalmania (the only word I can think of) for a man who was the leader of every Roman Catholic in the world?

I am a Roman Catholic, so this is a tricky thing.

See, although I firmly believe in the element of ecstasy in spirituality, generally, watching large groups of people taking the death of a man few of them have met and who was in essence a Catholic celebrity, just...(how shall I put this?) scares me ... a little.

We need to understand that the Papacy occupies a most interesting political/moral leadership position in the world. The Vatican mystique is part political, part spiritual and part historical. The world no longer looks to it for any sort of political guidance as it once did. But it is not like the good old days when the pope actually determined who sat on the thrones of countries, had a standing army that could kick some serious booty and was a true force in the secular political world of its day. The church had a strange role as a power broker in being both secular AND spiritual.

As for being an ethical beacon, the Vatican certainly has its place. Generally, Vatican opinions on all sorts of topics are duly noted by other foreign leaders who then weigh the political expediency of their own political realities and make their decisions accordinly. In short, other countries treat the Vatican much like American Catholics seem to: they listen to the teachings, and ultimately, decide what is right for themselves. Oh, some leaders make the pretense of listening, such as a certain president of a certain country that still executes its citizens. This president may (and I emphasize “may”) call the pope for guidance – oh, wait, that was a West Wing episode wasn’t it? Sometimes reality and fantasy are tough to tell apart.

But the Vatican is a human organization and as such is subject to human criticism. How do we separate the pope as a man versus the pope as the leader of an institution that has sometimes lost its way?

For the record, I am not here to give any credence to conspiracy theorists who suggest that Pope John Paul II was part of some plot to murder Pope John Paul I because his views of things did not fit a particular conservative agenda. I do not even intend to talk about the various historical abominations which place the Vatican Bank in league with the Mafia, or that John Paul II worked in concert with the CIA in the fight against communism or that past popes had conceived illegitimate children, or even those accusations that the Vatican conspired with the Nazis during World War II. (Hell, so did IBM, but you don’t see anyone asking for a boycott of IBM equipment these days. It seems we like our spiritual institutions pure, but our business institutions can just have at it.)

All of these things may be true, or none of them may be true. I come to bury, Caesar, dear friends, not praise him!The last time I recall giving this much thought to the Papacy of my Church, was during the heady days of liberation theology in the ‘70’s. I know there aren’t many today who would think those grand days, but I recall them as being so full of potential. This is the climate in which John Paul II ascended to the papacy. The cold war was in full swing, and the dilemma of how priests in Latin America should serve the poor was the hot button being discussed. People of Latin America were suffering mightily at the hands of brutal dictatorships - dictatorships, I hasten to point out, which were often supported by this same Church over which John Paul II ruled. Does anyone remember the rebuke John Paul gave Ernesto Cardinale, then a priest in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, during his visit? Cardinale, awkwardly kneeling, nearly falling over as he rose to the Pope’s admonishment, wagging a disapproving finger – all on film for the world to see.

This was a time, after the Paul VI died, and before the first John Paul died, that I really believed the Church was in for some change, that perhaps women could be included; that maybe the Church would speak out on more human rights issues; that maybe the Church could update it policy about artificial birth control.(It was Paul VI who gave us Humanae Vitae. If you want to see what the fuss is about, click the link. This one simply eludes my comprehension. )http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html )

The Catholic Church, to its credit, is a strong opponent to the death penalty, a cause near and dear to my heart. The Church, in following Jesus’ teachings of corporal works of mercy, adheres to a message of social justice for all people, regardless of stage of life.So the Church has that right at least. It is consistent with its stance on preserving life, even if it muddies the waters on some issues. (Now how one goes from that point to not allowing artificial contraception is a leap even the Great Wallendas would have trouble with.)

In the end, John Paul II carried on the tradition of Paul VI. He did, in fact, speak to human rights issues. He warned of the potential dehumanizing effects of globalization, against capital punishment, spoke out against the war in Iraq (how many pro-life sign carrying Catholics were aware of that? How many of these protestors stood in lines holding signs not to invade Iraq?)

As the Berlin Wall fell, and then, communism, he found himself with only one adversary left in the west: the materialism of the MTV world. That is, at least before the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic movement, when lo and behold, we a brand new crusades just in time for the new millennium was born.

It’s really no surprise that his message of social justice rings most true with people of the third world and why the church is growing there while it is shrinking in the countries of Europe and America. It’s really no surprise that the youth of the world loved John Paul II either, since he more closely resembled an old Polish pastor, with a grounded sense of the people around him than some sort of ideological reactionary. The world is in no short supply of charming, charismatic leaders. People – especially young people – need their gods (if you pardon the analogue) to be accessible, and human.

They are already affixing the title “The Great” to his name. (I tried this at home, but it didn’t work as well for me, maybe you can try this where you work – send out a memo insisting that everyone from this date forward, add “the great” after your name Let me know how it works for you!)

Looking back on his papacy, the Catholic Church of John Paul II has not changed much. In fact, it has gone from the uncertainty of the 70’s with the possibility of a whole new spiritual order, to the same comforting paradigms we grew up with and were terrorized with as kids. John Paul decided social justice was needed in other parts of the world, but not, it seems, for practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith. That is still a puzzle to me.

The lack of allowable dissent, the lack of critical thinking, the lack of expression - these are all of great concern to me. Ideas are not things that come from a vacuum. Ideas require the fertilizer of debate, doubt, counter-intuitive thinking to grow. I understand the Catholic Church is not a democratic organization and I am not suggesting it needs to be.

It’s just, how can we proclaim the need for human justice when one half of all the humans on the planet are deemed unworthy by this institution to simply consecrate bread and wine at the daily Mass? Verily, I say, what would Jesus do? Frankly, I think He’d be just a tad pissed.

As I watched John Paul’s burial, I got a little teary eyed, I admit. I mean, the pomp, the ritual, the splendor of the event and the waves of humanity are impressive. Who doesn’t like a grand show?

I suspect that he was really a man of peace; he sought to bring life to the forefront of all human endeavors. He found himself on both sides of the political spectrum when it came to important issues, (abortion, death penalty, stem cell research, contraception, ordination of women) and you have to respect a man who makes decisions based on his own informed conscience. And isn't that all anyone can ask of each of us - that we act in accordance to what we believe?

Does all this make John Paul II a bad guy? Should we not honor this man? I don’t know. Maybe he’s misguided; maybe he’s malevolent.

I only pray he has found the freedom in his death that his Church seems to refuse the rest of us here on earth. I pray that his quest for peace and for creating a culture for life includes most importantly, the quality of tolerance. There is so little of that these days, and the world is in such short supply.

I just hope that someday my Church can feel less threatened by new ideas. I pray that She can learn that one can adhere to tradition and still allow growth. I hope that She learns that being tolerant does not mean abandoning core doctrine. The challenge for any Christian church today is to bring the living message of a gospel that is thousands of years old forward, while leaving behind the chaff of the old cultural baggage.

I only hope that a belief in God’s goodness prevails. Let’s hope that this goodness, which He imbues in each of us, has not been buried with John Paul.

M C Biegner4/2005


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