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Comment: The Pope

Most Reverend Father Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

It 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.

Now, 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."

It 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, O.M.D., U.B.
email: suriak@

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Previously by Antonio: The Importance Of Dog Collars


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