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Reflections on Karol in Heaven

John Paul II has been dead a year, but still won’t leave my head. I never knew the man, yet when I was lost from the faith, his presence as pontiff kept me from dismissing the Church completely. 

Pope John Paul II

When his Church is troubled, Christ sends us his mother, his miracles, and his saints. To the non-believer, this truism of Catholic history and imagination might seem obscure, even strange. For the faithful, however, his fidelity offers great consolation. Remember, he told his disciples, I am with you always, to the end of the age.[1] Much of the drama and joy of our tradition emerges from the gradual realization of this promise, as history becomes a landscape studded with crosses, great and small, and graced by the clear-eyed gaze of the Virgin herself. Christ unfolds his mysteries before us and, awash in their graces, we are able to pass into the future unafraid, our appetite for hope and promise satiated by the ever-flowing blood of the Lamb.

Although unable to articulate this at the time, I saw, in his person, an answer. 
This is not some medieval piety brought back from the dead. We have seen this in our own time, and have felt the indescribable presence of the living one[2] among us. “What a privilege it must have been,” Romano Guardini wrote, “to see the Lord in that early period of abundance when he carried holiness into the crowds. How straightly he spoke to the souls of men! Pressed forward by the élan of the Spirit, he reached out to people with both hands. The rush of the Holy Spirit swept the kingdom of God forward, and the rush of the human spirit, shaken by the force that demands entry, felt it beat against the door… His speech stirred; it tore the spirit from its security, the heart from its rest; it commanded and created. It was impossible to hear and ignore.”[3]

John Paul II has been dead a year, but still won’t leave my head. When I am alone, I speak his Christian name aloud, Karol Wojtyla, just to revel in its sound. It moves in the mouth like a live thing, and is akin, in my mind, to other beautiful words like Jesus and America. In all honesty, I find his influence in my life perplexing. I never knew the man, and from an objective standpoint he was never more than a face on the television or words on a printed page. Yet consider this–when I was lost from the faith, his presence as pontiff kept me from dismissing the Church completely. I could turn my back on many things and many people, but never him. A year before he died, soon after my return to the Church, I dreamt we shared lunch with a small group of friends. We sat around a table while he spoke fondly of Kraków, and I remarked that I would never in a million years wish for his responsibilities. After this, I was elated for days. It was as if he’d been there beside me, truly, and I felt blessed to have broken bread with such a man.

It is only natural for me to look into a mirror and see my mother’s eyes and my father’s mouth, but to know the constant presence of a stranger so closely, to feel that the shape of my life has changed in deference to his struggle with the cross, is often overwhelming. I’m certain that others share this sentiment. There is, in a life of witness, a perfection that takes us beyond mere words and into the heart of suffering itself. Looking into his eyes, one of the Medjugorje seers noted, was “just like looking into the eyes of the Blessed Mother.”[4]

Confronted with all manner of human misery, he answered with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To fix ‘in a formulated phrase’ a person of such extraordinary depth is, at best, exceedingly difficult, and lapsing into hagiography (in the pejorative sense of the word), though perhaps understandable, is ultimately self-defeating. Too much has been written already, and threatens to obscure the singular intensity of his life. This was bound to happen. He was too great a man not to be overtaken by his myth. As John Paul lay dying, I remembered Auden:

“…But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumors;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling faded: he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living…”[5]

An appropriate discussion of his influence must begin at as self-evident a point as possible, acknowledging the simple fact (to paraphrase John Allen) that this pope mattered.[6] The connections he forged with the people of the world were real and profound, and rooted, ultimately, in his extraordinary charisma, that most unusual and elusive beast. In 1993, while he was in Denver, I watched a brief clip from the day’s activities on television. The footage showed him sitting by himself (or as alone as he was ever likely to be) and reading, wearing a brand new pair of walking shoes with iridescent yellow laces. It was clear to me, crystal clear, that this man existed, he was there, in a way I’d never seen or known. His effect on me, at least for a few short moments, was magnificent. I was filled with joy. Although unable to articulate this at the time, I saw, in his person, an answer.

I offer this as an example to sketch, if only briefly, a framework for understanding his charisma, reformulating it not as a trait or quality possessed, but as a relationship created between John Paul and others for a particular purpose. It is a complex process that deserves careful attention. Charisma, according to much of the literature, is fundamentally concerned with crisis. Indeed, “charisma and crisis are dynamic, interlocking forces, feeding on and manipulating one another.”[7] The charismatic leader is chosen by followers for their ability to address certain crises of the context at hand, whether these be political, cultural, material, or spiritual. In this sense, a leader considered charismatic in one setting may or may not be equally charismatic in another, the dynamic between leader, follower, and crisis having been altered.

“The meaning of a charismatic relationship,” David Aberbach argues, “must lie in the interconnection between external crisis and the inner world of the charismatic.”[8] The charismatic leader is best prepared to handle a certain crisis effectively because they have already been forced to deal with this same crisis in their own inner life. This earlier, more personal crisis need not have been entirely overcome. Some may pursue active involvement in public life most vigorously because “solutions which are non-existent in the inner world may offer themselves in the public role.”[9] Or, to move beyond the social sciences and into the more colorful realm of the Catholic imagination, some may be called by Christ to serve his Church in light of their unique insight into the crises of a certain age. The cross in question fits their shoulder, and they are pulled from the ranks to preach his Gospel and announce his glory.

A year before he died, soon after my return to the Church, I dreamt we shared lunch with a small group of friends.
It is often remarked that John Paul II was ‘a man of his time’, a recognition that in no other historical figure of the twentieth century do we see a personal journey so inextricably interwoven with the major joys and catastrophes of the day. It is as if the entire sordid experience of humankind’s killing century was bottled up within the life of one man, left, in lonely solitude, to piece together a multitude of shattered lives. The crises of the personal and the external can be brought together by a single word: Auschwitz. It serves as the death rattle of an age, symbolic of all the horrors humankind can offer itself, an argument periodically restated throughout the blank darkness of the world. It tells us that all we do is ultimately meaningless, a rearguard action against entropy and dissolution, and that nothing at all can stand in the face of such willful obliteration. For John Paul, this was no mere academic question–Auschwitz was only a short distance away from his home village of Wadowice, and it was at Auschwitz that most of Wadowice’s Jews were killed.[10]

“My God, my God,” Christ cried from the cross, “why have you forsaken me?”[11] It is the cry of all creation. Yet somewhere within the dark night of young Karol Wojtyla, the fateful decision was made that, in the crucible of a world seemingly abandoned by God, he would with equal fervor abandon himself entirely to God. From this response arose his absolute and unwavering commitment to the value of each and every person without question. It was this surety, internalized so perfectly and completely, that shone through in his witness. Confronted with all manner of human misery, he answered with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, an answer consistent and without compromise. It was this authenticity, in defiance of despair, that drew us to him.

Yet what remains of this relationship, with its many complexities, now that he is gone? Despair remains, of course, and the argument lingers. There are atom bombs and AIDS, Geoghans and Shanleys. The nature of the modern spectacle is all-consuming, a way of being and a way of seeing bent on destroying our capacity to love one another. We live under a near constant barrage of bloodshed and mayhem, with airplanes piling into skyscrapers, and fallen priests fumbling under the bedclothes of terrified children. Those whose lives, half a world away, are not torn apart by a precision bomb instead succumb to disease and starvation brought about by bureaucratic indecision and callous disregard. We watch and wait with glazed eyes and dull hearts as the world bleeds itself dry around us, growing expert (as we are wont to do) in the arts of the voyeur, but less than adequate in our Christian perfection. The characteristics of the spectacle–its speed, its brutality, its mutability–spread through our lives like a plague, and the violence and dark sensuality of strangers eventually becomes our own. We begin to fade around the edges, our hearts slowly crushed by the weight of the world. It is spiritual cannibalism, diabolical.

Looking into his eyes, one of the Medjugorje seers noted, was “just like looking into the eyes of the Blessed Mother.”
We are not alone in our struggle. The Church has not been left without a shepherd. In Benedict XVI, we find a pontiff uniquely placed to lead the Church through the joys and crises of his day. Yet in all the many speculations about the nature of his papacy, the details of one essential challenge have been left unspoken. In Benedict, we see a new father for a new age of faith. John Paul II held us as a parent holds a newborn, cradling us close, singing the lullabies of faith in Jesus Christ. As we grew in his shadow, he was there to help us when we fell. Yet as every parent knows, there arrives a necessary time when a child must rise on its own.

“We must not remain children in faith,” Benedict preached at the beginning of the conclave that brought him to the papacy, “…a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith–only faith–that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”[12] This is the challenge that will define our future, we saints of the New Evangelization. We must become as fanatical in the cause of love as those who would deny love completely.

The commitment to search for sanctity in one’s own life entails a radical recommitment to the message of Christ in both its cosmological and social dimensions. Sin distracts from this adventure within us. “Our unutterable wretchedness,” Léon Bloy wrote, “comes from our continually taking for figures or inanimate symbols the clearest and most living statements of the Scriptures. We believe, but not substantially.”[13] We must remember that the Gospel is not some vague palliative–it is a man raised from the dead. Yet without fail we hold the word of God at arm’s length, afraid that, brought close, it might take root in the heart and bear fruit.

Faced with the crises of his age, he met them directly with the full force of the cross and, by abandoning himself completely to God...
After he died, I had another dream that I was with him. He was young again, his eyes bright and full of life. He held me by the hands and spoke to me, but what he said I can’t remember. Is it still within me, or is it lost? How many will read this and think Yes, I have felt the same, have felt the waiting, the desire, the longing for God. When will this hesitation end? When will we push back against our fear and realize it is only a shadow, the voice of the accuser, a temptation as old as the world itself? When, if not today?

The measure of John Paul II will be in those who continue to follow him toward Christ, his vision of the New Evangelization left for others to shape and build. Faced with the crises of his age, he met them directly with the full force of the cross and, by abandoning himself completely to God, gave those who listened the hope of another, better world. After Auschwitz, Primo Levi once remarked, there can be no poetry. After Wadowice, we might add, there can be no fear.

We stand upon a threshold. Remembering his witness, we are like the Israelites on the night of the first Passover, standing in a bloody doorway and marveling at the works of the Lord. Imagining our future, we are like John, the youngest of the Apostles, pausing outside the tomb on Easter morning. He hesitated, of course, in deference to Peter, allowing the first Bishop of Rome to enter before him as a sign of respect. But perhaps his hesitation, as well, came from the sure knowledge that, if all he found within were empty burial rags, then the world had, at last, been utterly transformed.

1 Matthew 28.20
2 Revelation 1.18
3 Guardini, Romano. The Lord. Trans. Elinor C. Briefs. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1954. 47.
4 Sullivan, Randall. The Miracle Detective. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004. 409.
5 Auden, W.H. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”. A Pocket Book of Modern Verse. Revised Edition, Ed. Oscar Williams. New York: Washington Square Press, 1958. 474-75.
6 Allen Jr., John L. “Twenty-Five Years: The Papacy of John Paul II.” The Best Catholic Writing, 2004. Ed. Brian Doyle. Chicago: Loyola, 2004. 199.
7 Aberbach, David. Charisma in Politics, Religion and the Media: Private Trauma, Public Ideals. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 7.
8 Ibid. 7.
9 Ibid. 9.
10 Sullivan, Robert and the Editors of Life. Pope John Paul II: A Tribute. Ed. Robert Andreas. New York: Time, Inc. 2005. 27.
11 Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34
12 Homily of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff, Saint Peter’s Basilica, 18 April 2005. http://www.ewtn.com/pope/words/conclave_homily.asp accessed 29 March 2006.
13 Bloy, Léon. Pilgrim of the Absolute. Ed. Raïssa Maritain. Trans. John Coleman and Harry Lorin Binsse. New York: Pantheon Books, 1947. 14.

May 4, 2006

BRIAN KENNEDY lives and writes in Manchester, New Hampshire.

© Copyright 2006, Brian Kennedy. All rights reserved.

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05.05.06   Godspy says:
John Paul II has been dead a year, but still won’t leave my head. I never knew the man, yet when I was lost from the faith, his presence as pontiff kept me from dismissing the Church completely.&nbsp;

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