Friday, April 08, 2005

"Reverend Uncle": An Encomium

As a boy, I saw the movie based on the Morris West novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman, starring Anthony Quinn in the title role. It has remained for years one of my most beloved films.

In the story, a Russian bishop is released from a Siberian prison, and is elevated to the cardinalate by an aging Pope, who soon dies. By acclamation within the conclave, this former exile is elected to succeed his benefactor. The world on the brink of nuclear destruction, as a man unaccustomed to ecclesiastical intrigue, and more at home with the lives of everyday people, becomes the latest successor to Peter.

In one scene from the movie, Quinn disguises himself as an ordinary priest, and walks through the poorer streets of Rome. His character never appears happier at any other time. For most of the story, he is still in the prison that is his responsibilities. The climax of the tale is his radical response to the unfolding tragedies in the modern world.

I remembered the story I had seen on the movie screen, the account of a fictional Slavic pope, when I first heard of the election of one who was true to life. The years have not rendered that work of cinematic art any less prophetic. Upon hearing of his death six days ago, I was moved to share with my readers what he meant to me, both as supreme pastor, and as a man. Others have already commented on him most ably, and they appear elsewhere in the blogosphere. On the other hand, I couldn't do any worse than the know-nothings we have all had to endure on the news channels.

All told, I have waited until this day of burial, this time of final commendation, to say goodbye and raise the parting glass.

Karol Wojtyla ("Lolek" or "Charlie" to his friends, as his father's name was also Karol) was born in a little town in Poland, which was newly liberated from division among the aging powers of the ancien régime. When he wasn't serving the priest at the altar or being devoted to his studies, he was out playing soccer with his friends, many of whom were Jewish -- this in a country whose Christian population was more anti-Semitic than most.

Karol lost his mother at eight, his older brother at twelve. As if that were not enough, it was yet another invasion, this one the most hideous of all, that sealed the doom of his innocence. In a nation which used its national identity as a weapon alongside guns, he became an actor in the Polish underground, and assisted in hiding his Jewish friends, some of whom were caught, never to be seen again. Coming of age as a man, he lost his father, and so found himself in the world. Out of the darkness of this loneliness came his ultimate epiphany. This young man, who had lost all whom he ever loved, would give back to the world an unending love, in deciding to become a priest.

With Karol's entry into the seminary came even greater risk to his life. Ordained after the war, young Father Wojtyla was sent to Rome for further study. His eyes were opened to the nations of the world, even as such revelation increased his affection for his own.

His love for the outdoors was a hallmark of his priestly apostolate, and groups of young people accompanied the young parish priest on mountain hikes, camp-outs, and canoe trips. These adventures were highlighted by the singing of folk songs on his guitar, enlightened discussions on religion and philosophy, and clandestine celebration of Mass. It was on such a trip, that Karol learned of his appointment as a bishop. When asked by his friends how he wished to be addressed, he replied: "Call me 'Uncle'."

The new bishop became adept at squaring off against the Russians who invaded his native land even as the Germans left. The years of war had given him a "street smarts" unknown in a prince of the Church. His camaraderie with young people would continue, and his understanding of their lives would deepen. They would marry amongst themselves and invite him to their homes. He shared in their joys, and knew the intimate details of their challenges, both personal and marital.

With the convening of an ecumenical council, Karol was among those bishops in attendance. At the first session, he listened. Upon returning to the second, he spoke out, and was instrumental in that Council's document on the Church in the modern world.

In the meantime, while still a young bishop, he drew upon his experience with pastoral work among married couples, and his studies of theology and the sciences, merging them into a book entitled "Love and Responsibility." First published in his native language in 1960, it would not be translated into English until twenty years later, by which time Karol was even more suddenly swept up by outside events.

A troubled papacy had ended with the death of Paul VI. This tragedy was compounded by the subsequent death of a man who succeeded him for little more than a month. It was yet another man who eventually appeared at the Vatican balcony, on that October day in 1978, who was a shock to the world. Who would have guessed that a man from a country other than Italy, let alone a one from behind the "Iron Curtain," would wear the Shoes of the Fisherman?

In addition to being the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul II was the first pope in modern times who was not a Vatican "player." That is to say, he was not on the usual "fast track" of a Papal diplomat or a curial official. This new pope was a parish priest at heart. Administration and curial intrigue were not his strong suit, but reaching the masses of people was. So he drew the most trusted of advisors around him to do his bidding from within, and went "around the system" to take his message to those whom he truly served. The stage he played as a young man became larger and out in the open; the stakes of his message much greater.

He drew a spotlight on the Sermon on the Mount, warning even married men that carnal lust was uncalled for, even with one's own wife. As Saint Paul admonished the Ephesians nearly two millennia earlier, women were a sacred vessel in the eyes of God, thus in the teaching of the Church. This did not stop at the altar of life that was the marital bed. Such teaching was strange to the ears of many. So began in earnest, the harping of armchair critics, both in the halls of academia, and from the defiant voices in the pulpits.

For this pope, the Church and the world no longer had the luxury of playing games in the halls of the Curia. There were souls at stake, what with man's greatest inhumanity to man fresh in his memory, and in the face of what he once predicted was a battle between the Church and the anti-Church. It was time to take the real message of the Second Vatican Council to those who would hear. It was more than enough for priests to be all they could be as priests, and for the laity to be all they could be as the laity; one could not be truly actualized without the other. For this view of the Church he was both loved and hated.

Meanwhile, his cries for the freedom of his native land reached the ears of those with evil designs. Their attempts to silence him failed. This man, this wounded shepherd, had been brought down in battle before. He picked himself up and continued to lead the everlasting pilgrimage. His resolve so moved the world, from its leaders to the man on the street, and the empire that would have destroyed him was itself destroyed from within.

This man would go on to defy description and easy classification. Was he a "conservative"? Was he a "liberal"? Did it matter? He was a man of great taste in art and music -- not in a way of indulgence, as with those posessing material wealth, but by that way in which beauty lifts man, elevates him, to see the truth in beauty, and the beauty in truth. He knew the back-breaking labor of the commoner, and the suffering of the oppressed. He was at ease meeting with public figures such as President Reagan and folksinger Bob Dylan, just as he was with the garbage collectors of the Vatican, or the homeless of Rome whom he invited to dinner. This parish priest in a white cassock performed baptisms and weddings within the walls of Vatican City, and his violet stole hung outside the confessional door every Good Friday.

His commanding stage presence encouraged the follower, confounded the skeptic, and transfixed the eyes of the world's electronic media. He knew the occasional victory, and would be discouraged by the occasional defeat, if only for a moment. Not all who were charged with carrying his message did so faithfully, but often acted in their own self-interests. This betrayal extended to bishops as well. This weighed heavily on his heart. Still, he would press on. Those who would detract from his message, who would stand in his way, he was not above admonishing -- whether in his hollowed chambers in Rome, or as the eyes of the media were watching.

His pilgrim-followers saw age and lingering illness take their toll on him, and still his shepherd's staff bearing the image of a suffering Christ was seen at the procession's head, and he sojourned onward. In the final years, that image of suffering became truly his own. But in spite of the prodding of media pundits and academic dilettantes, he would refuse to lay down the cross. This was Calvary, and there were more steps yet to climb.

And so he did. When the final curtain fell, on the feast of Mercy that he himself had proclaimed a few years earlier, he made his exit worthy of his thespian craft.

In the view of this writer, the man known to the world as Pope John Paul II was, in the final analysis, a pope for the rest of us. In this midst of intense suffering, he proclaimed news of great joy. In the wake of the greatest darkness in the world, he carried the message that was the Light of the world.

"Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on..." As if to echo the words of the old Negro spiritual, the world he left continues on pilgrimage, as the poet and philosopher who wore the Fisherman's shoes, crosses over to that which is to come.

+ A + M + D + G +

No comments: