A man for all faiths

Posted: Apr 07, 2005 12:00 AM

The rains in Washington on the day that Pope John Paul II died were unusually ferocious, as if the heavens were weeping with uncontrollable sadness. The winds blew in thunderous gusts, unusual for an April shower. The daffodils that had only barely emerged from the dark earth to herald a late spring bent over in nature's prayer.

A great man was dead. The world leaned close to hear and read his last words, listening for the whispered "amen" before he made a triumphant transition from life to death. How extraordinary that so many men and women who are not Catholic felt themselves bound together in mourning with collective memory a religious man who transcended parochial appeal.

Not many men journey across the human stage as such a figure of unity. Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Greek and Roman Orthodox exulted in the expansion of a generous spiritual shelter even when they disagreed with certain of his doctrines. We trusted the man for his thoughtful positions that grew out of a fusion of spiritual integrity, intellectual coherence and ethical refinement. He inherited certain traditions that traced a long legacy in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, but we believed he had thought them through for himself. He wanted to hold the line in a secular world careering out of control.

Had I been Catholic I would have had trouble with some of the Catholic dogma, but who could not admire him for what he did for the world in its struggle to free itself from the twin evils of fascism and communism.

In this week of eulogies there's very little that hasn't been recalled about who he was, where he went, what he said, how he pushed the envelope of history and politics and animated young people. He rode his "popemobile" as if a rock star, but no one ever confused him with worldly glitter. Each person who found something special in this man found something special in himself. He made us all reflect on who we are, why we think or believe, or not believe, what we do.

I've always respected the Catholic Church for holding on to absolutes to measure ourselves against. John Paul II embodied them in his whole person, never taking the simple argument at face value, but forcing it in our faces to think about why we believe a certain idea is right or wrong.

He was large enough to apologize for past offenses, to identify wrongdoing by his church and to move us to meet him in his human aspiration to make the world a better place to live. What Jew could not be moved to see him at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or speaking at Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust:

As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.

He spoke to Jews in a world where anti-Semitism is once more emerging in Europe and the Middle East. He had personally experienced the evil of Nazism and linked his experience with an understanding of what the Jews had suffered. He called up personal memories to spur public good. "We wish to remember," he said. "But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism."

In a world where so many political apologies are so much thin soup, emerging from deep in the shallows at little or no cost to the apologizer, the pope's apologies - and he offered close to a hundred of them - seemed to arise out of a tragic awareness that the institution designed to alleviate suffering used its power to victimize as well. He asked for forgiveness "for the use of violence that some used in the service of truth."

Just as he broke precedent to acknowledge Protestants as "other Christians," he spoke of the Jews as "our elder brothers in the faith," as "the religion that is closest to our own." He was profoundly aware of the burdens imposed on "the chosen people."

In his book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," he recalls how he told an Israeli politician that the Jewish people continue to "bear signs of its divine election." The Jewish politician agreed, and added: "If only it could cost less!" John Paul II nodded, knowingly, and did what he could to reduce those costs. We'll miss him.