It’s already been a year since Pope John Paul’s death. It seems only yesterday that we were out standing in Saint Peter’s Square, looking up at the familiar face in the window as he struggled to communicate with the expectant crowds below. Still fresh in our minds is the inundation of affection as the throngs poured into Rome to accompany this giant of the faith in his final hours, and to bid farewell to a dear friend.
John Paul is sorely missed. The crowds of pilgrims that have once more filled the streets of Rome to celebrate this anniversary testify to the impact he had on countless lives. More than a world leader, John Paul somehow managed to be a father and a friend to all. Even as a player on the world scene, he never lost his personal touch.
Many are now trying to reevaluate the legacy of this great pope, and as necessary as this endeavor is, a more personal reflection seems more in keeping with John Paul’s own style. I am sure that some of the things I most miss will resonate with many.
I miss, perhaps most of all, John Paul’s warmth and humanity. His quick wit and impish humor–like the vaudeville-style cane-twirling in Manila or his improvised raccoon-eyes to the delight of children–shattered notions of a dour Polish Christianity. His ability to focus on the person in front of him as if he or she were the only person in the world spoke volumes about the heart that beat in his breast. In an age when religion can be used as an excuse for violence and conflict, John Paul showed us that true faith in God is not only compatible with love for humanity, it galvanizes it. John Paul sincerely loved people–all people–and it was his Christian faith that enabled him to do so.
I miss his presence on the world scene. I remember him scolding mafia leaders in Sicily (which led to bombings of churches), fearlessly standing up to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and defending human rights in his native Poland. He could be counted on to stand up for those most in need, to challenge world leaders to integrity, to preach Christ with an unaffected self-confidence that flowed from a deep-seated faith in God and a trust in the fundamental goodness of the human person. John Paul reached out perhaps more than any pope before him to a world in need, and provided moral authority and leadership when our generation needed it most.
I miss John Paul’s unflagging hope. His bright vision of the future and his characterization of the third millennium as a springtime of faith encouraged us to look beyond our real difficulties and to reach out for solutions. Far from a mere temperamental optimism, John Paul’s outlook was rooted in the firm belief that the battle is already won. Even from the midst of evil–John Paul wrote in his last book–God can and will continue to bring good. From his first “Be not afraid!” spoken on the day of his election in 1978 to his final witness of serene and hopeful suffering, John Paul taught us to abandon fear and to live with confidence in an infinitely good and merciful God.
I miss John Paul’s prayerfulness. Even in the midst of a grueling agenda of meetings, travels, and writings, the pontiff always made abundant time for prayer. Four hours a day was not unusual. What a challenge to those of us for whom prayer can seem at best like a luxury, or at worst like an underutilization of our precious time. Like Jesus before him, John Paul made prayer a priority and placed his trust more in God than in the best-laid programs of men and governments.
Incessant calls for John Paul’s sainthood, and the news of a probable miracle attributed to his intercession (poignantly, the cure of a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease) give grounds for hope that soon the Church will officially recognize what many already believe–that the man who so faithfully looked after humanity while on earth continues to do so from heaven.
This past week Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s long-time secretary, stated that John Paul “continues to serve the Church.” We are acutely aware, he said, “that he continues to guide us with his word… and does not cease to confirm us in the faith.”
For those of us for whom John Paul’s death left a lingering taste of orphanhood, these words are no small comfort. Looking up to that familiar window, we repeat the words uttered by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at John Paul’s funeral Mass a year ago: “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father.”
–Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, is dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic Social Doctrine, and is a Vatican analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.