John Paul II was the Father the world needed

Posted: Apr 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Pope John Paul II's singular mark on history has provoked countless words in praise and commentary as observers try to explain his immense popularity among non-Catholics and even the non-religious. The night is still young, but I haven't yet heard mention of the one word that may hold the key to the riddle: Father.

He was, of course, the "Holy Father." Il Papa. But he was more than that. He was the transcendental father figure. The symbolic Man. Adam in 21st-century flesh. Leader, teacher, disciplinarian, protector of hearth and home, he embodied all the traits of the uppercase Father.

I realize this is all very old-fashioned in an era of feminist theology, but then so is the Vatican. Do we really wish it otherwise? As a non-Catholic, I don't have a dog in this hunt, but I kind of like the idea that somewhere, someone is holding the line taut, setting human ideals above our easy reach.

Pope John Paul II exuded father-ness, which is not to diminish his importance on loftier planes. He bore the lessons of Christ's sacrifice with intellectual agility and physical grace. But in his person, carriage, attitude, tone and appeal, he also satisfied the profound human hunger for affirmation from a male authority figure that, historically, fathers - now increasingly absent or marginalized - have provided.

Certainly, John Paul II caused rifts within the church and arguments beyond the pulpit, as commentators have often reminded us during the past week or so. Many of those reporting from Rome ceaselessly reiterated the disclaimer that the pope's version of Catholicism was "very doctrinaire" and "very orthodox," as CNN's Christiane Amanpour repeatedly put it.

What's missing amid this compulsive footnoting seems clear: The pope's orthodoxy is at least partly why he was so revered. We're not like him, most people easily concede. But do we want a pope who is like us? No more, I suspect, than we want a president who is just a guy.

John Paul II's allegiance to principles related to marriage, sex, birth control, homosexuality and other topics that keep the cultural machinery in perpetual spin cycle wasn't his flaw, but rather his strength. Whether some of us might disagree individually was not his concern. He didn't rely on focus groups or polls.

In his role as quintessential father, the pope was willing to lay down the law even if it meant listening to the foot stomping, wailing and gnashing of teeth from the little darlings. As the Lord did not say, "If it feels good, do it," neither did John Paul II. There is much to admire there, even if there is also much to resist.

Thus, it seems plausible that his popularity, especially among young people, may be partly attributable to his moral constancy in the face of dissent. Reporting from Rome on Friday, Father Richard Gill, president of the Institute for Psychological Sciences, said on "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" that the crowd at the funeral was "easily 60 percent to 70 percent young people."

Imagine that. Young people, whom older generations tend to identify with pleasure-seeking and sexual abandon, herded themselves through Rome's streets to participate in the funeral of an elderly man who said "no" to just about everything. No premarital sex, no abortion, no artificial birth control. Perhaps baby boomers are projecting, as many of them, and surely the non-Catholics among them, would consider most of those strictures tantamount to idiocy. Certainly, they are impractical and, for many of those joining AARP, moot. Been there, done that, going to confession soon-ish.

Today's younger generation, however, has grown up under different circumstances, notably within divorced families, often without fathers, in a coarsening culture awash with sexual hookups, pornography, unwed parenthood and family disintegration. In America today, half of all children will witness the breakup of a parent's marriage. Forty percent do not live with their father. Before age 18, more than half will spend part of their childhood away from their father.

In such an environment, it is not surprising that a symbolic father figure should have an estimated 2 billion people riveted by his life and death, including throngs of young people, some of whom trekked across oceans and continents to bear witness to his funeral and burial.

If you're the child of a broken family, perhaps one without a father - or an adult awed by rare moral courage - a doctrinaire, orthodox pope might seem just the ticket. Perhaps even a godsend.