Farewell to a Great
"There was a man!"


Well, it seems to be sticking. Signs in the crowds at the funeral read: JOHN PAUL THE GREAT, even JOHANNIS PAULUS MAGNUS, which has about it the air of the ages. Indeed, it has been 1,400 years since the last pope was by popular acclaim called “the Great”–that was Pope Gregory the Great (590-604)–and before him there was only Leo the Great (440-461). I do not recall so much emotion at one event in my lifetime–so many arduous hardships endured by so many just to arrive here, so many truly devout and heartfelt prayers, so many declarations of loyalty and love, so embracing a sense of friendship. The crowds were immensely respectful of one another, across nationalities and races. They wanted these moments in Rome to be worthy of him, and of Him whom he served.

I wonder whether there has ever been so great a crowd at the death of any single human being in history. I wonder whether any single human being has been loved by people of so many different religions and races and regions–so loved, so honored, so esteemed, and already so sorely missed.

We witnessed something here of historic proportions, and global proportions. It is, indeed, the global church. It is, indeed, humanism’s church–in racial and ethnic reach, in love for everything human. Nil humanum alienum mihi, as the ancient church already said: Nothing human is alien to me. But perhaps that feeling is brought out chiefly, or more clearly, than ever before by the life and enthusiasms of our now dead and beloved pontiff.

Most impressive was the grief of the young, and also their devotion, their deep prayer, and their sense of loss. Beside me in St. Peter’s basilica at the first Mass of mourning the next day was a beautiful young woman of college age or just after, in a red sweat shirt with hood, white lace kerchief on her hair. She knelt so devoutly in prayer at the consecration, she was so concerned within, that I took her, possibly, to be Polish. When she turned to go to communion, I could read the motto on the back of her sweat shirt, in white: “You CAN’T be Catholic and pro-abortion,” with the address of a website. As we left, she was still wrapped in her own grief and said nothing, perhaps hearing nothing. There is such a feeling of desolation.

How great he was, we shall only know decades, maybe centuries, hence. But those who follow us in the distant future need to know that the wave of feeling here in Rome at his death–and, apparently, on television worldwide–is deeper than emotion. It springs from a very deep and ineffable part of the soul. And it is not, exactly, a sorrow that he is gone. We know that he is with us still, interceding for us before the Lord. We know very well that now he is interior to us, not just exterior, as he perforce was in the flesh. Yet in him we had such a privilege. His kind is so utterly rare. He may be the one man most like Christ in the whole history of the papacy–well, if I am wrong about that, there cannot have been many in whom nature had vested so many human gifts, to show forth the manifold sides of Christ the Lord, “in Whom and by Whom and with Whom were made all the things that were made.” So many gifts endowed in Karol Wojtyla that all nature might stand back and say: “There was a man!”

Already the cardinals are said to be in awe. The outpouring of the funeral was far more immense than anybody could have dreamed. There was never perhaps so large a gathering of media resources in the world. There was never such a flood of human beings–estimates at times said 5 million, many of them held miles from Rome because of crowding closer in–although one must suppose that harder numbers will eventually come in at lower, but still unprecedented, figures. And here in Rome there was no spectacle, no entertainment, only a place for prayer, reflection, grief, joy, love, and gratitude. Signs everywhere showed favorite photographs of JPII with a simple “GRAZIE” emblazoned on them: Thanks!

It will be nigh impossible for the cardinals, even if some would, to turn now in another direction. I think they must keep faith with the millions in the streets and weeping before their television sets worldwide. At all times, the Catholic Church (now 1.1 billion strong, and the fastest growing religious body in the world) turns like a great aircraft carrier–very slowly. It now owes it to its greatest leader ever to sail straight ahead, directly into prevailing winds. The very winds into which our admiral joyfully sailed: “Be Not Afraid!”

It is not so much the doctrinal teachings that are here in question, but rather the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for all human beings through him, that Pope Wojtyla taught us. Fidelity to doctrine, yes, but first things first: It is the distinctive love that God himself brought into the world, the sun’s flame of caritas, which Dante writes is “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.” It is this that fired our John Paul. He was a vessel of the love of Jesus Christ for the entire world. He was Jesus’ vicar. His life among us was too short. We would have liked to enjoy his company, his strength, his laughter for all eternity. And now we shall. It is only here that we must live with sorrow a little while.

I am glad I was able to be here and, when no one was looking, to blow him a final kiss as he disappeared into St. Peter’s, out of sight.

Michael Novak, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Talks, holds the George F. Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.