Comment: The Pope
DAYS ON THE THRONE
Most Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.
seems like a busy, major Hollywood movie set, something perhaps
out of George Lucas or Akira Kurosawa: the lush settings, religious
images, tapestries, enough candles to light the entire scenario.
Odd, interesting people, who could pass for aliens in a sci-fi flick,
are hovering about silently in their multicolored robes, skullcaps
and tall headgear. They have their eyes closed, excepting the handful
that keeps eagle eyes on everything. Perhaps those men are wondering
exactly why they are where they are- and what exactly they're supposed
to be doing.
Then the most
incredible scene of all unfolds: a gigantic, rolling throne is wheeled
into view, pushed by a half dozen robed attendants. Slumped in the center
of the throne is a tiny, shriveled man, like a crumpled marionette vested
in white and gold. His head slumped deep into his chest, his mouth sometimes
hanging open, sometimes clamped in an effort to withstand the cruel
pain wracking his body. It is not a scene from a movie. It is real life,
and this slumped little man who can barely move is His Holiness Pope
John Paul II, Supreme Pontiff, leader and director of the Holy Roman
Catholic Church. He is quite possibly the most powerful man on earth.
And like the man who is probably the most powerful intellect on earth,
Professor Dr. Stephen Hawking, the pope is collapsed in his chair, not
quite immobilized- but very nearly. Unlike Hawking, John Paul can still
speak and move his head and arms. However, he's not far from becoming
exactly like Hawking.
Karol Wojtyla, one of only two Polish cardinals back in 1978, had been
a lifelong athlete; a powerful, handsome man with the flair of the professional
actor, possessing a great, incongruous intellect. In that fateful, sad
October of 1978, the Year of the Three Popes, Cardinal Wojtyla was elected
pope. John Paul II was the name he chose, this lucky man who was the
third pope to sit on the Throne of Peter in less than four months. The
staggering young pope, who was only 58 and looked 35, quickly eased
the sadness of the recent passing of the previous two popes. His ready
smile, laid-back manner and facility in over a dozen languages made
him an instant, beloved hit.
In ensuing years, this pope would infuriate all but the most slavish
Roman followers, with his Medieval mindframe and his penchant for draconian,
hypocritical decisions. He would rule with an iron hand, the hand that
some erroneously believe was responsible for tearing down the Iron Curtain.
He would be responsible for a mass exodus, tens of thousands of disenfranchised,
chastised Catholics seeking another more sensible church. He would be
responsible for throwing back the "Holy Mother Church" five
hundred years. He would be responsible for a new order of priests: 21st
century Grand Inquisitors, much like himself.
In his early life, the man who became Pope John Paul II would hide underground
during World War II, studying theology and doing nothing to help his
fellow Jews. Having been raised exclusively around Jews, raised by a
Jewish mother whose family converted, Pope John Paul II would come to
be hailed by Jews as the only pope who ever really helped them. It would
take the pope nearly two decades to admit that he did nothing to help.
perhaps for the first time in his life, the pope is showing great
courage. He is showing great strength, great power of will, great
compassion. He is wheeled before the public when he should be in
a nursing home, because he wants people to see that he is, after
all, only a man. He shows the public, for the first time, an unashamed
view of what is happening to his body hoping that people
will remember that this can happen to anyone. The pope wishes to
convey and engender a feeling of compassion for the fallen... something
he himself was not always very good at doing. It is not a matter
of a pope showing the world how to die with faith; that was already
accomplished by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. What
John Paul is doing now is showing us how to live, in the face of
pain, opposition, disability. He is now communicating, with his
very presence, that which he failed to achieve throughout his pontificate:
"DO NOT FORGET, DO NOT MISTREAT, THOSE UNFORTUNATE ONES AROUND
YOU, WHO ARE EQUALS."
is the bravest thing any one person has done in many decades. As a fighter
against all injustice and discrimination, as a sufferer of three major
neurological diseases, I am deeply moved and touched by this man, a
man who until recently was one of my biggest pet peeves. Almost overnight
John Paul went from a man I deplored to a man I admire. Why? Because
he stubbornly refuses to retire? The answer is "Yes." He will
not let disability and illness get in his way. Perhaps that strength
was his downfall as pope in the past - but now it is his saving grace.
In this purgatory on earth, the pope will be cleansed of his past errors
and will die without sin. To put it another way, the man is paying big
time for what he's done. Anyone who will do that with courage, and in
front of everyone, deserves a second chance. Sadly, John Paul has no
second chance. He is ravaged and invalided, he is useless and at an
end. With only that to offer us, he offers it wholeheartedly, happily,
peering into the camera when it closes in on his twisted, pain-wracked
face, as if saying, "Go ahead- look. Look carefully. I am not immune."
The world waits with baited breath - even those who will never admit
it- waits to see what will come next. Will John Paul move aside? Will
he die soon? Who can replace him? He wants the world to know that none
of those questions matter right now. For now, all that matters is that
he is up there, doing only the best he can, perhaps for the first time
in his life. He is showing the world the calling card God has left him,
showing off the scars of his many encounters with the Eternal in meditation,
like many Jews and Buddhist clerics often show. But John Paul has been
issued his final warning to prepare. He will share this gift with the
world, another Buddhist goal, as long as he is able. Finally, John Paul
is telling us that only the here and now matter.
A person who can do such things, steadily and powerfully, evoking tears
even from his enemies, is living the True Gospel. It is a Gospel that
has no other name, and belongs exclusively to no one- it is common,
global property but difficult to understand. Pope John Paul II is living
this Gospel right now. And like a poor rabbi 2,000 years ago, he is
saying "Into Thy Hands I commend my spirit."
We should all be so brave, so strong, and so repentant.
[I ask all my readers who are so inclined to join me in prayer for this
great man, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, in his titanic struggles
and suffering. He deserves at least that much.]
© Oct 20th 2003 Most Reverend Father Antonio Hernández,
email: suriak@ yahoo.com
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