The great sadness and loss that will attend Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday is tinged with the admiration and appreciation that comes from the contemplation of a life truly well lived. The pope obviously, literally, was unique as a human being. But many of us have known the feeling of saying goodbye to a beloved friend or brother, who inspires us every day as we think about their lives. They are not gone, and they continue to lift us up, even if they are physically not among us anymore. That is the kind of legacy Pope John Paul II leaves us with, including those of us who are not Catholic, but count ourselves among his fans.
What made this Pope so spectacularly successful was his evident humanity. John Paul seemed so very approachable, particularly to children, as we have heard over and over in the testimony of those who met him. One of the Pope's minder during his visit to the United States recalled that the pontiff had a very specific request, though hardly a very demanding one -- that two Becks beers be placed in his room every night for a nightcap. Clearly, this was not only a great man, but also a regular guy. And a Pope who flies a plane named "Shepard One" has to be blessed with a sense of humor.
John Paul's death came soon after Easter, during which time when he was struggling with great dignity through the last days of his life. At Easter, Christians celebrate the humanity as well as the resurrection of Jesus. The passing of the pope similarly makes you marvel what human beings can do when moved by the spirit of God. We all have that divine spark within us, even if we are not gifted with the same talents and intellect.
That very human touch also meant that John Paul was able to reach out to other religious groups, to Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and especially Jews. His work to reconcile the Catholic Church with the Jewish community, his declaration of anti-Semitism as a sin, counts as one of his greatest achievements. His work combined strong conservative principles in favor of the sanctity of human life with an ecumenical spirit that made him reach out across continents and put more miles behind him than any Pope. It is said that he has seen by more people than any other human being, ever.
Behind the gentle, friendly face, however, was courage in spades and an iron constitution. John Paul lived through the occupations of Nazis and Communists in his native Poland, and he returned in the 1979 to give heart to the Polish people to face down communism. Poland ruler at the time, General Jaruzelski now tells how the earth shifted under the communist regime when John Paul arrived. Taking courage from John Paul's leadership, Poles lost their fear, and Solidarity was born - and with it the seeds of destruction of the Soviet empire.
Even more remarkable on a personal level was John Paul's approach to the young man arrested for attempting to assassinate him in 1981 at the instigation of the Soviet secret service, a result of John Paul's inconvenient opposition to Communist totalitarianism. He not only went to prison to forgive the young Turk who had almost killed him with a bullet that missed his heart by millimeters; he befriended him as well. That is greatness of spirit of an order that most of us can barely imagine.
Catholic theologians will debate John Paul's legacy as a steward of the Church, at a time when it came under assault and strain. In the liberalizing period following the Second Vatican Council, John Paul was a conservative influence who believed in "absolute truth" and who had a strong and consistent pro-life agenda. Nor would he be pushed by feminist agendas into accepting women among the Catholic clergy. In the United States, this made him perhaps more appreciated by Evangelicals than by many American Catholics who to balked at the strictures against birth control and abortion. There were also those who thought that the Vatican did not move quickly enough to deal with the crisis of the Catholic Church in this country, relating to pedophilia.
Speculation as to the papal succession has been going on for days. There will be time enough for that. For now, let us contemplate and celebrate the life and lessons of a great leader who walked among us and with his gentle spirit stole our hearts.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times