Shining witness

It has been, amazingly, an entire year since Pope John Paul II finally (to use a phrase his generation must have been familiar with) gave up the ghost. In the week or so he lay in state at the Vatican, the Inquirer tried to come to terms with his death and reckon with his outsize legacy. The effort included the following three editorials; the last one ran on the day of the "world’s largest funeral," on page one.

April 3, 2005: "Old-time prophet"

MANY did not realize it then, when he first came on the scene, because he had the vigor of youth and the build of a mountain-climber. But as fate or providence would have it, "God’s athlete" turned out to be a prophet.

A prophet in the Old Testament mode, that is: invoking the heavens, thundering against injustice, preaching the gospel of reform and repentance.

Especially in his first years as Pope — in Poland in 1979, in Brazil in 1980, and then, astonishingly, in the Philippines in 1981; all large Catholic countries laboring at that time under dictatorships — John Paul II brought hope to millions by speaking truth to power.

In February 1981, for instance, Ferdinand Marcos was at the height of his powers. He had orchestrated an ostensible lifting of martial law the previous month and was preparing the groundwork for a make-believe presidential election the following June.

The papal visit itself seemed, at least as presented by the controlled media, like a benediction on Marcos’ brand of "constitutional authoritarianism." But on Feb. 17, in Malacañang, the Pope threw the spotlight on the regimes’ human rights violations and anti-democratic measures. "Even in exceptional situations," John Paul II pointedly reminded Marcos, "one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity."

Veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright, now writing for the Washington Post, vividly recalled the impact of the Pope’s unsettling remarks, which were heard by over a thousand dignitaries inside the Palace and by millions of Filipinos on live television: "The papal speech was a wringing and humiliating rebuke of Marcos’ dictatorship. During Marcos’ 21-year rule, no other visiting chief-of-state, before or after the pope, was ever so publicly candid."

(Contrast the Pope’s candor with the diplomatic hypocrisy four months later of George Herbert Walker Bush, then vice president of the United States, in his infamous toast to "newly reelected" President Marcos: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.")

A few days after the Malacañang reception, visiting Bacolod City, where the divide between rich and poor was widening and the fate of priests and church workers increasingly grim, the Pope embraced the cause of the oppressed in unmistakable language. "Injustice reigns when within the same society some groups hold most of the wealth and power, while large strata of the population cannot decently provide for the livelihood of their families, even through long hours of backbreaking labor," he told a crowd of over 750,000, which included both wealthy sugar planters and impoverished sugar plantation workers. "Injustice reigns when the laws of economic growth and ever greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer."

And then, most memorably: "the Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity but to ask for justice."

The Pope’s words were "magic, like music to our ears," Columban Father Brian Gore, a long-time missionary in Bacolod, recalled to UCA News. "For the ordinary people this was terrific, because they’ve been under pressure, they’ve been persecuted — now the Pope was on their side."

The old-time prophet’s electric effect was felt in many other places too, and by Filipinos from all walks of life. For the first time since martial law was declared in 1972, the majority heard someone tell the truth about the Philippines.

Many do not realize it now, but John Paul II’s first papal visit to the country changed Philippine history — in much the same way his other visits changed the history of Poland and Brazil. It strengthened the Church, preparing it for the role it would eventually play in the thousand days between the Aquino assassination in 1983 and the People Power revolution in 1986. It gave hope to a dispirited people, emboldening them for the changes that were to come. Not least, it put the fear of God in the dictator, forcing him to make some changes. These were largely cosmetic, but by a twist of fate or providence more and more people began to see through them.

April 4, 2005: "A man of faith"

JOHN Paul II was the first pope of the digital age, but he held a faith that can best be described as ancient, one for the ages. It is this paradox which explains why his papacy, the third longest in history, was both extraordinary and riven with controversy.

He believed in the power of the Christian faith to make a difference in the modern world; in other words, he believed that a living faith was a relevant one. He communicated this belief in many ways, especially in his many travels, which brought his message home to untold millions in 129 countries.

But he also believed in the provenance of the Christian faith and, to the dismay of many liberal Catholics, refused to add to the dogma he had inherited. Especially in his last decade, he battled with advocates of change: those who wanted women to be ordained, or proposed that priestly celibacy be optional, or argued for same-sex marriages, or campaigned for the uses of contraception, or promoted the right to choose.

But even his most ardent critics saw him as a man of authentic conviction. And in his last days, he reunited the Catholic world through his very public suffering, drawing it closer to the vital center he had reinvented in his 26 and a half years as St. Peter’s 264th successor.

His role in world history will take center stage in much of this week’s post-mortem coverage. Lech Walesa, his countryman from Poland and the founder of the Solidarity movement, struck the high note for the coming drama’s leitmotif by quantifying the intangible. The Pope, he said last week, was "50 percent" responsible for the collapse of communism.

History’s judgment may not be as categorical, but historians agree that the Pope’s triumphant visit to Poland in 1979, when the Soviet empire was at its peak, was a turning point. It led directly to the founding of Solidarity the following year, and then to other reform movements elsewhere in communist Europe. Amazingly, in only a decade, the empire was reformed out of existence. (And as we wrote yesterday, he also helped in the de-legitimization and then eventual overthrow of dictatorships of the right, including that of Brazil and the Philippines.)

The Pope’s role as a media superstar will share the spotlight of coverage in the next few days. Elected in 1978, at a time when personal computers were still largely unknown, the Pope became a past master of today’s media-driven, image-obsessed global culture. He outdid rock stars at their own game, pulling people to mammoth, electric, open-air affairs that nobody wanted to end. (In January 1995, during his second visit to the Philippines, he drew the largest crowd ever assembled in history.) He practiced the politician’s art — flesh-pressing, baby-kissing, crowd-wading — at levels previously unseen. And he became the first pope to write a book ("Crossing the Threshold of Hope," an international bestseller), the first to issue a papal encyclical in compact disc format ("Evangelium Vitae"), the first to use a website.

But because he was, above all, a priest and spiritual leader, his principal legacy may well lie in the most controversial aspect of his papacy: the way he preserved, but did not add to, the deposit of faith.

Again, paradox describes him best.

He held the record for many extraordinary firsts: the first to pray in a synagogue, the first to visit a mosque, the first to preach in a Protestant church. And yet many found him unresponsive to radical change within his own Church. Instead, he introduced innovations in the liturgy and in the Church’s prayer life. In this sense, his most characteristic legacy may well be the Mysteries of Light, a new set of mysteries for the Rosary that codifies familiar, traditional beliefs.

An active participant in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the extraordinary "opening of windows" which led to many reforms but even more uncertainties, John Paul II used his papacy to bring an end to the post-Vatican II turmoil. In this light, his most important legacy may be the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the first universal summary of the Catholic faith in over 400 years.

These paradoxes, however, are just that, apparent contradictions, because in John Paul II’s historic papacy, they all came together in a bold, coherent, life-changing faith.

April 8, 2005: "One of us, one for the ages"

MANY of us still remember the last moments of his first visit. For six days in February 1981, Pope John Paul II had turned the country upside down, drawing millions of the devout and the curious out of their homes and into the public square. The scenes of ecstatic welcome in Manila and Quezon City were repeated in the cities of Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, Legaspi, in Morong, Bataan, and then finally in Baguio. By his last day, even he was visibly reluctant to leave.

That day, a Sunday, he took his time at the departure ceremonies at the airport, embracing his well-wishers, raising his ring to be kissed, blessing everyone in sight. Then he went up the steps to the plane, turned around — and lingered. He waved goodbye (and each time the crowd shouted, “No! No!”). He blessed the people again and again. He looked on, clearly moved. At one point, he rested his left arm on the hand rail, looking directly at the throng below him, and with his right hand waved again.

The Pope had arrived in the Philippines a visitor; he left, six days after, as an old familiar.

When he returned 14 years later, the Pope picked up right where he had left off. "We are, indeed, old friends," he said in his arrival statement.

And at the end of his five-day visit in January 1995, the same thing, amazingly, happened again. A longing crowd, a lingering goodbye. At one point, the Pope, much aged by then, and with a surer sense of time’s inexorable passage, teased those who had gathered to see him off: "No jealousy, no jealousy." He meant we must learn to share his presence with others too.

Today, when John Paul II is finally buried in the tomb once occupied by John XXIII, the "Good Pope" who convened Vatican II and to whose papacy his own will forever be linked, many Filipinos will have to learn the same lesson all over again.

An old friend has made his final journey.

Much has already been said about John Paul II’s place in history; he is obviously one for the ages. Many have recognized the role he played in helping tear down the Iron Curtain. On the eve of his death, the Inquirer also recognized his role in sowing the seeds of people power movements around the world. "Especially in his first years as Pope — in Poland in 1979, in Brazil in 1980, and then, astonishingly, in the Philippines in 1981; all large Catholic countries laboring at that time under dictatorships — John Paul II brought hope to millions by speaking truth to power."

But his extraordinary if controversial papacy cannot be judged on history’s terms alone. It must be weighed on an altogether different scale, one that measures faith. On the day he passed away, the Inquirer sought to describe his 26 and a half years as St. Peter’s successor through faith’s sometimes obscure lens. "An active participant in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the extraordinary ‘opening of windows’ which led to many reforms but even more uncertainties, John Paul II used his papacy to bring an end to the post-Vatican II turmoil. In this light, his most important legacy may be the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church,’ the first universal summary of the Catholic faith in over 400 years."

But even these milestones in world history and the Roman Catholic Church’s own faith story do not explain the global outpouring of grief over his death, which is truly unprecedented. Part of the reason, of course, lies in the very nature of modern media events. They are spectacles, and whether they involve the sudden death of a carefree princess or the prolonged suffering of a well-traveled pope, they help create our reality; even the casual onlooker becomes engaged.

But there is a deeper reason, and it lies in the Pope’s own gift for identifying with people. The millions he visited, the millions he had moved, believed that he was one of them.

Filipinos, like other "old friends," have many reasons to share in that belief.

For one thing, his spirituality was like our own: a traditional faith, nourished on popular devotions, finding strength in Marian commitment.

For another, he shared the Filipino’s sense of a geographically ordained destiny, albeit in religious terms. Time and again, he called on Filipinos "to play a prominent role in the missionary effort of the Church and to give shining witness amid the ancient noble cultures of Asia."

For a third, he believed in the Filipino’s potential, and appealed again and again to Filipinos to exercise leadership in the Church’s mission. "Take your place in the forefront," he exhorted. "Contribute in your own way to the proclamation of the Gospel."

Not least, very much like a Filipino, he doted on the young. He listened to their music, hummed along if he could, famously swung his cane to their beat, and addressed himself to their deepest concerns: "Too many young people do not realize that they themselves are the ones who are mainly responsible for giving a worthwhile meaning to their lives," he said, speaking their language. "The mystery of human freedom is at the heart of the great adventure of living life well."

To the very end of his own great adventure, when he was called not only to teach but to give witness, through his own suffering, John Paul II taught all of us what it means to fully plumb the mystery of human freedom.



Filed under Readings in Religion

2 responses to “Shining witness

  1. Jojo

    This positive portrait of the late Pope does not dovetail with the short memoir of the late Christine Tan when she was summoned by Rome to explain why she was helping the urban poor, and sternly warned not to be too involved in politics. It also does not jibe with the efforts of Rome to try to hold back the political involvement of the Philippine Church after the assassination of Benigno Aquino, when Cardinal Sin decided that the policy of critical collaboration with the Marcos dictatorshp was over and it was time for the Church to side with the forces of democracy. Was JPII being Clintonian?

  2. Gej

    Thanks John for posting excerpts from that editorial last year. For me, that piece captured, more than any of the editorials and articles I read last year at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, much of how I felt about the him and his passing, and what I thought many more of our fellow Pinoys felt about our “old friend” who had “made his final journey”.

    He wasn’t just one of us, he was like part of the family. In my case, the first time I saw him face to face I was with my mother and siblings, the next with my girl friend and best friend, the third (and final time) with my then-girlfiend now-wife. It was quite like going out to meet a very close relative.

    The way he reached out to other faiths was revolutionary. The way he gently but firmly chastised corrupt governments showed how courageous he had always been.

    He had indeed been responsible, and had the intellectual capacity, for the loads of Encyclicals (I even saw in the Vatican Website that he had an address to artists, and athletes- there was just so much written during his time), even books, capped by the “Catholicism of the Catholic Church”, and had been key in all the sessions of Vatican II.

    But what remains etched in my memory, and perhaps in many others, was his humanity – his playfulness, sense of humor , strong yet gentle voice, his quite acceptance of his own suffering.I also remember how there was so much energy all around him wherever he would be. And I will always remember his deep, piercing, yet indescribably kind eyes that seemed to speak to your soul.

    The Mysteries of Light were indeed his pamana.

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