I've never personally known anyone who disliked Pope John Paul II. I know plenty of folk who consider the papacy a wrongheaded and corrupt institution. To their credit, my friends in this camp were able to look past the office and admire the man. I even knew an atheist who spoke about John Paul II with near religious reverence. (Granted, he was a Polish atheist.) I am aware that St. John Paul II had his critics both inside and outside the Catholic Church, but the breadth of his appeal and influence was remarkable.
Though I could not begin to list the many superlatives and firsts associated with this pope, I will mention a few of facts which have bearing on a personal story.
One of Pope John Paul II's consistent messages was, "Do not be afraid." He spoke these words in his first address as pope. He spoke them to the youth. He spoke them to his Polish countrymen resisting Soviet communism. In contrast to some leaders who viewed the rapidly changing world of the 20th century as a threat to the Christian values and institutions, John Paul II believed the Church held answers to the ills of modernity. He was an apostle who believed the gospel was the light of the world, the salt of the earth.
John Paul II took bold steps to recognize and bolster the Catholic faith in places far away from traditional halls of power - in the Global South, in the East, among the youth. He canonized 483 men and women, adding more saints to roles than had been added in the past five centuries. These saints came from all parts of the world and all walks of life, a strong reminder of the catholic nature of the Church. He also appointed 227 cardinals, significantly expanding the college and intentionally increasing representation from Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Vatican II's decree on ecumenism was close to John Paul II's heart. Under his leadership, Catholic relations with other Christians traditions improved significantly. Reconciliation with Orthodox leaders was a special priority, as was improving relations with Jews.
Now for the story....
Somewhat to my surprise, I got up in the middle of the night to watch John Paul II's funeral. I am not a night owl, and not much of a television watcher, but I felt a prompting that this was an event I needed to witness in real time with the rest of the world.
As the religious dignitaries began filing in , my heart rejoiced to see so many Orthodox patriarchs, so many Jews, so many cardinals with dark faces. I was fascinated by the Eastern Rite patriarchs in their exotic clerical garb. I was thrilled to see representatives from the Billy Graham Association and the Salvation Army alongside other Protestant emissaries. But there were two men who captivated my attention all night long - Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (soon to be Pope Benedict XVI) and Brother Roger of Taize.
Both of these men had already made their marks on my soul - Cardinal Ratzinger through his writing, and Brother Roger through his ministry. In some ways they represented the two halves of my heart - the Catholic part and the Protestant part. We happened to visit Brother Roger's community in Taize the summer of 2000, one week after I felt released by God and my husband to become Catholic. Seeing thousands of pilgrims coming to seek God in prayer and song, worshiping side by side was a great sign of hope to us.
For those who may not know, Brother Roger was a Swiss Reformed pastor who took the uusual step of founding a monastic community. Their mission was to pray for healing and reconciliation in post-War Europe. After Vatican II the Protestant brothers were joined by a few Catholic monks. These brothers of Taize prayed together, worked together and offered hospitality to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. As an ecumenical community, they prayed for Christian unity while being mindful to honor the disciplines of their own traditions. This meant that Catholic brothers received communion only at Catholic masses. Protestant brothers had their own communion services. And there was a separate chapel for Orthodox Christians where they could celebrate liturgy when a priest was present.
Brother Roger and John Paul II were friends. I was not very surprised to see that Brother Roger was given a front row seat for the funeral, especially as he was confined to a wheelchair. But I was shocked, and moved to tears when Cardinal Ratzinger offered him the chalice during communion. There was no explanation given, no seeming discomfort on either side. These men were not ignorant of the rules, nor were they the type to flaunt them. But there with the eyes of the world upon them, love transcended the rules. Not even the television pundits dared to comment.
The next week I attended a women's retreat at my family's church, Hope Chapel. In the evening there was a time for reflection and sharing. Several ladies mentioned watching John Paul II's funeral. Some of these women were ex-Catholics bearing a lot of pain from their childhood. Others were Protestants without much prior exposure to Catholicism. All of them were deeply moved watching the funeral mass. Some cried as they found themselves healed of past hurts. Some remembered forgotten beauty from their childhood - a kind priest or nun, a piece of art which had touched them. Many of them spoke about a new understanding or compassion for Catholic relatives and friends which came over them as they watched. I remember one woman who said she called her Catholic mother after the funeral and asked forgiveness for some fight or misunderstanding.
As I sat listening to these women tell their stories, and as I remembered weeping on my own couch, I wondered how many lives Pope John Paul II touched in the hour of his death? I remembered Paul's words to the Corinthians.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.
I imagined John Paul II as an especially large earthen vessel, full of fragrant oil, like the jar of perfume Mary poured on Jesus' feet. During his life, this apostle had done great things. The power of God was at work through him. But when the vessel was broken, I believe the oil poured out in new and surprising ways, spreading its fragrance throughout the world.