Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

April 2, 2005

In Memoriam, Pope John Paul II

Filed under: — Different River @ 11:13 pm

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Pope has passed away. I remember hearing predictions of his imminent demise for at least the past 15 years; I guess if you predict something like that long enough, it eventually comes true. :-(

I have some comments on this, but I want to preface this with the disclaimer that I’m not Catholic, and as such I don’t have the same perspective, particularly the religious perspective, that Roman Catholics can and should have. I’m an outsider on this, and I do not mean to tell Roman Catholics how they should feel. In particular, I imagine that many Catholics will feel a deep sense of personal loss that non-Catholics will not. Second, I’m Jewish, and as such am more concerned with the attitude of the Catholic Church to Jews than I imagine the average Catholic is.

Having said that, even if we regard him as a mere man, this particular Pope was an extraordinary man. He understood and spoke out about the evil of Communism in a way that few other world leaders were able or willing to (the main exceptions being Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, neither of whom was Catholic). For Jews, he unequivocally repudiated the previous antisemitic positions and actions of his church, and became the first Pope in anyone’s memory to visit a synagogue and the Land of Israel. (Considering that he is often accused of being too deferential to tradition, remember that that was a nearly 1500-year history of antisemitism that he repudiated.) And, he stood out against the nihilism of modern secularism, which he correctly called a “culture of death.” (I’m not sure whether it’s more extraordinary that he stood for life, or that we consider it worthy of note that someone of his stature was actually in favor of people remaining alive.)

Few remember (I’m old enough to remember, since I was nine years old!) that it took a an act of personal courage for a Polish Cardinal to accept the papacy in 1978. Poland was then (gosh, I love to write that in the past tense!) a Communist country, one of the few in which any form of religion was legal, but one whose citizens were not free, even — perhaps especially — to emmigrate. In particular, contacts with foreign organizations, or indeed any organization that claimed any authority or power outside the Communist structure, was particularly suspect. There was some question at time as to whether the Soviet-controlled government would even allow Karol Jozef Wojtyla, then Archbishop of Krakow, to leave Poland. After he became Pope, there was speculation that if he returned to Poland, he might be arrested. What actually happened turned out to be worse — in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca shot the Pope in St. Peter’s square. Recently-released files from the Stasi the East German secret police, show that Agca was recruited by the Bulgarian secret police on the orders of the KGB. (Also see here.)

The reason for this was simple: The Pope had begun to speak out against Communism, and since he had lived his to-then-nearly-entire adult life in Communist Poland, they could not really claim that he didn’t know what he was talking about. In short, a former resident of a Communist country with a pulpit visible around the world was, from the Societ point of view, just too dangerous. George Wiegel, the Pope’s official biographer, said that Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union’s KGB intelligence agency, warned the Politburo that there could be trouble ahead. He was right.

In addition, the Pope’s spiritual inspiration is unquestionable. An entire cohort of young Catholics, mostly from less-religious or non-Catholic backgrounds, is known as the “JPII Generation” for the role they attribute to John Paul II in inspiring them personally to become Catholic and/or increase their level of devotion. I would say more, but I’m straying from my personal experience here and I think it’s best to let them speak for themselves. (Example here.)

UPDATE: Clayton Cramer has more on the Communism angle here.

2 Responses to “In Memoriam, Pope John Paul II”

  1. Snowdancer Says:

    This was a well-written post. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Different River Says:

    Thank you!

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