Sunday evening after Mass at the cathedral, as most in attendance headed out the front door, Bernadette and I went up to stand before the Pope’s picture which had been placed just below the altar. A purple cloth was draped over the frame and the wooden tripod holding it. A small crowd soon joined us. I noticed that, aside from a few of us Anglos, most were Hispanic with lots of kids who seemed strangely interested in getting a good look. Il Papa. The picture, by the way, was beautiful, taken in his prime. Remembering too well the resplendence of those early years, I leaned over to Bern after a moment and whispered that I’d like to go now.
I trust I am not alone in this tendency to take the thing too personally. But it's all right, I think. He can belong to you and to the whole earth at the same time - because in the end it is all very personal. If he was one for the ages, it is because he was for each one of us.
He was what Micki might call a “manly man,” which is not quite the same as the hail-fellow-well-met “man’s man.” Though in his fifties upon ascending to the throne of Peter, he was handsome, still exuding the vigor of youth. He was athletic, intelligent, learned, devoted, fearless, and of unyielding conviction. He loved babies and kids and women (see the picture at Micki’s place) and wanted to protect them all, for, like any real man worth his salt, he was also gentle at the core. He had the heart of a knight who had abjured the sword. He was a Catholic woman’s dreamboat, no doubt eliciting from the lips of many the frequent and furtive refrain: “Why are all the good ones already taken?” But there is more than one way of knowing a woman, and he had chosen the better way, honoring them all by denying himself the company of any one. It’s one of those mysterious Christian ironies that the world just doesn’t get. A lot of Christians don’t get it either, including me, even as I laud it. But I have seen how women react in its presence.
I wonder how many ‘real men’ have the bona fides of having survived the persecutions of totalitarian and genocidal regimes, even helping to bring one down without a shot being fired, except for the one he took himself - the assassin’s bullet? After which, surviving yet again – and in a gesture so many of us find nearly impossible, the true sign of his toughness – he forgave the misguided fellow. How many have seen members of their family – as he saw among certain of his consecrated brothers in the robes of Christ – accused of crimes most heinous against the most innocent among us, against, in fact, that family’s own children, only to be informed by the ensuing diabolical shriek that the shame was his own? (A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.) A few among us, in the long slide toward death, may endure years of progressive debilitation without once complaining bitterly of the injustice of it all, nor withdrawing in humiliation from the gaze of the world, but not many I would venture.
I haved lived during the reigns of five Popes, but this is the Pope of my life, my Catholic life. He's the one I finally paid attention to and, in listening, was sent back to attend to all the others. I identified the fervency of my own conversion with his robust love for the world and for the truth, for us and for God, such that I feel to this day I owe him a debt, some small part, perhaps, of whoever I am, however little that might be (the larger portion of that chit being held by my wife and kids). If not much, yet still I have the Faith, his steadfastness holding me up. To lose it would be to fail him. To show weakness, yield to doubt, give up the fight - this would be to let him down, to tell him that his life was misspent.
* * * *
I’ve been perusing old posts again, this one on the occasion of having written a letter to the editor of my local pro-abortion newspaper, in which I mention his (the Pope’s) picture on the covers of Time and Newsweek following his trips to Poland and the U.S.:
He looks so young, so handsome, vigorous, triumphant, and upright of stature. Those who are young may not see him in quite that way, but I have never forgotten the promise of those days. And two more issues of the same magazines, both with the Pope on the cover again, but this time with a priest's arm round his neck, holding him, as he lies fallen in his Popemobile after being shot by Ali Acga, beseeching his mentors, and Our Lady, "Why did they do it?" Physically he was never the same again, and looking at these pictures now, not only have I not forgotten the promise, but I remember anew, and feel anew, the love we all had for him. Now, in these days of real darkness, we need it back again. How must his heart be breaking?
The dark days are always with us, for this was only the beginning of sorrows. Later I mention the responses to my letter, phone calls from total strangers, "besieged lovers of little babies hunkered down in their homes like soldiers in bunkers, praying, wondering why the relief forces were so slow in coming," but also that I had gotten none from local priests, though I knew they read the paper. They used the news and commentary as a convenient source of homiletic gruel, while managing not to obsess on this "single" issue. And yet
...there was one priest at the head of everything - a white-haired fellow, a cold warrior, a liberator, a preacher of truth, and now a wounded soldier of Christ - who gave a damn and said so on many occasions. I believe his presence there was a fine motivator, like an angel at one's back, and I'd like to thank him for that.
And I still would.
* * * *
I remember being glued to the television during his first visit here (as I will be in the coming days of eulogy). I even watched until his plane took off, until it became a speck in the sky and disappeared. (Yes, the cameras followed him that far.) I remember because, in addition to that letter, I found a poem intended to freeze the frame. I can't reproduce it all because it's so awful, containing some regrettable lines about how our hearts were lifted skyward, "…by a machine/ bearing our shepherd home..."
...up to the blue edge of heaven's dome
Where last in a cloud the Lord was seen..."
And, if you can bear it...
The weeping man who buried his face
In Peter's robe, on the burning breast,
Is like the bird who builds its nest
In the full-grown tree, in a new place,
As prophets promised in visions of old
When at last the Spirit's outstretched wings
Overshadow one shepherd shielding one fold.
But, the poor plane, I wasn’t done with it yet:
...cold, winged-metal catches sunlight, flings
It back, as if that Spirit, ever soaring,
Bequeathed all things the gift of flight -
Even, this day, such manmade things
Borne aloft on thunder roaring,
But gleaming now in evening's last trace,
A vessel blinding by its light,
Full shining, sun-bright with grace.
I take comfort in knowing that John Paul, being a poet himself, would offer no more than that sly, appreciative smile. He was a master of the right gesture, after all, and would know how to receive one. Now he's caught the last flight out, on wings no camera can follow.
* * * *
As to his governance during that sex scandal, many took issue, including me. I had polished a cynical despondency to a bright shine, the conviction that things will never change. The Pope’s evident goodness had softened neither the heart nor the hyenic howl of the culture of dissent, which had midwifed the scandal itself. Something had to be done, something radical and violent. Why didn’t he do it? All the while plagued by reservations, admitting that I could not know what was in his mind, that my merciless American fondness for cleaning house might not be the way of purification for a body of believers whose relation to each member of it was, at bottom, mystical. Leave the perpetrators and their protectors to the mercy of secular law, to the humiliation of the faithful’s swelling outrage. Dangling in the wind must be most excruciating for those charged with guarding, and leading us down, the path to virtue. The arguments have been made, will be made, but not by me anymore. Is it possible that a man upon whom rests the finger of God might know something I don’t? Aside from the victims and their families, is it even conceivable that any of us were more grieved by events than he? No answer is necessary. My only wish now is that, if any of my thoughts would have offended him, he might forgive me.
* * * *
As Bernadette and I left the church, we spoke with the priest. (In time, he will preside at her wedding. He is one of two priests, precisely two, whom I have ever heard so much as mention Humanae Vitae). I shook his hand and leaned in to whisper, “Thank you for bringing in Terri Schiavo.” “Well,” he answered, “she deserved it.” For during his homily he had done a courageous thing. He had told the truth, informing those before him – a fair percentage of whom I imagine were just fine with Terri’s fate – that a woman had had her food and water taken away by others who considered her “useless,” as good as dead, as leading a life of no human worth, persistence in which state was a grave offense to her own humanity. (By this they meant her former humanity.)
The priest drew a parallel, of course, with the Pope’s own decline into helplessness. Like many others, he saw more than mere coincidence in the overlapping of their two ends, in Terri’s commencing during Holy Week, and in John Paul’s entering the Kingdom on the eve of the Divine Mercy. He (the priest) did not believe in coincidence. He believed that “God was speaking to us.”
I’m a little more…sceptical, shall we say, allowing much room in this life to “mere coincidence.” But I must admit that Terri’s Holy Week ordeal marked a confluence of events that Judge Greer – a Christian, as his defenders will not desist from reminding us - had neither the sense of irony nor the wit to arrange. It is a confluence that ought to give the cynic pause.
I say that the priest’s homily took courage because he must have known that the weight of public opinion was against him, and that Catholic congregations don’t differ too much from their fellows outside the fold. One of the more curious spectacles during Terri’s state-enforced death march was that of certain Christians – from nationally known pundits on down to the most obscure bloggers – and of some who call themselves Catholic, orthodox, pro-life and papist, suddenly embracing a most anguished ambivalence if not outright, self-assured dissent. Well, as I’ve said before, this is America, and you can call yourself whatever you want. I guess in Terri Schiavo they finally found their hard-case exception.
We know the Pope was aware of her dilemma, that she must have been in his thoughts, and that he had sent his spokesmen out to plea for her life. I wonder how he felt, knowing that one of his sheep was being legally murdered in America, and that there was nothing he could do to save her. But no, you couldn’t see the point of it all, couldn’t stand by either of them at the last. What a send-off for a woman who was your sister in the Faith, and for the man who prayed for you every day of his life and loved you as one of his own, as one of Christ’s ‘little children.’ Terri Schiavo was one of those too.
* * * *
With equal credibility but less certitude than was claimed by those who announced her utter absence, the disappearance of her soul and personhood in those last years after the world was taken from her, I like to think that she still had friends and recognized them as such. Maybe they were only the shapes of shadows defined by light. Sometimes they came to her daily and kissed her on the cheek, stroked her hair, and spoke to her, and maybe she heard them from afar, as a baby in the womb hears mother’s voice, and knew they were her friends because we all know when a thing intends good to us. There was no agony of waiting because time meant nothing. Time was her friend, too, the fluid in which she swam, as do we in our dreams. The soul, no matter the state of its temple, needs love, which is its life. I like to think that God reached down into the womb of her unawareness and fed her daily, bathed her in it every night, while you and I pursued the things of this world, wrung our hands over her pitiable fate, and, glorying in our own ‘awareness’, wondered if she should really be here.
Some have said she was only an “issue” to us, another pro-life outpost in the culture war against the righteous forces of “choice”, and against whom we seem compelled by a purely private, otherworldly, and fanatical delusion to take up arms. But to me she was just a girl, a woman, who could have been my daughter, my sister, my friend; who was once as ‘normal’ and beautiful as you, and who wanted the same things in life, but whom misfortune befell, and we abandoned her to it.
She, like the Pope, came unto her own, but in the end not in a form pleasing to the eye, and her own received her not. She's family now, a blood relation both of the flesh and of the spirit. I won’t forget her, and I hope you won’t either. Pray for me, sweet child of God.