Our religion teachers weren't fond of the pope.
They'd taught us he was a drab authoritarian from Eastern Europe—incapable of understanding "democracy," Vatican II or modern notions of sexuality.
That's all curious to ponder today, since this pope became the father of democracy in Eastern Europe, had been a leader at Vatican II and was to write more positively about sex than any pontiff in history. But it was Oct. 2, 1979, I was a 14-year-old freshman in an Astoria Catholic high school, and we were on our way to Madison Square Garden.
Drab authoritarian or not, the pope is the pope, so the nuns in rust-colored pants-suits duly led us onto the RR train, handed out our red-and-white tickets (I still have mine) with the young pope's smiling picture, and told us to sit quietly. We enjoyed the cheesy folk hymns people piped in as he arrived, and laughed when the pope responded to our cheers with a folksy "Woo-woo-woo!"
John Paul stood before us beaming a smile that had weathered the nightmare of World War II—which killed 25% of Poland.
Still, I sat there with a condescending smile, thinking: "What a charming man, after all. A pity he has such old-fashioned ideas. If only he'd grown up in America . . . " What a pompous teenaged twit.
But as the pope spoke to us, we could feel something different in the room, something scary and alive. This was not the voice of barnacled tradition, of formulas drowsily repeated by the prejudiced, drowning out original thought. Not at all.
John Paul stood before us beaming a smile that was not naive but wise, which had weathered the nightmare of World War II—which killed 25 percent of Poland—from Nazi occupation to Soviet "liberation," which had sweated in coal mines, stared down the KGB, encouraged exhausted dockworkers and counseled dejected mothers, inspired college students and peasants alike to look anew at the long-buried treasures of the Truth.
What was that Truth, which the pope came to that gloomy arena to speak? That buried inside the stinking coffin of the grossest suffering lies something radically other. A power that no kommandant, commissar or euthanasia doctor can understand or extinguish—a blazing, beating heart of hope.
The pope used his agony as a teaching tool, wielding his battered, aching body as weapon against the culture of easy life and cheap death.
Pilate could not extinguish it on the cross, and the guards could not contain it in a tomb. When it burst forth on the earth, it set men on fire, and that flame still burns today—for instance, in the lamps that hang before the tabernacles in every parish of New York.
That hope was marching on the city's streets this past weekend, as Catholics carried the pope's own monstrance, parading the Body of Christ, through Manhattan's secular streets.
That blazing heart of hope kept the pope's battered body alive when a Muslim assassin shot him, and it bore him for the next 25 years, as his wound slowly wore him down.
It has pained us to see his transformation—from the grinning pope who skied, went mountain climbing and stole Bono's glasses, to a tortured shell of a man. Sometimes I could not bear to look at him. But through this debilitating suffering, and heartbreaking crises within the Church, the pope carried the cross.
Having made impossible Orwell's nightmare of ‘1984,’ the pope did his best to save us from Huxley's ‘Brave New World.’
In his last years, the pope used his agony as a teaching tool, wielding his battered, aching body as weapon against the culture of easy life and cheap death—which wages war against the helpless, the invisible, the least of our brothers, whose sufferings inconvenience us. Having made impossible Orwell's nightmare of 1984, the pope did his best to save us from Huxley's Brave New World.
It will remain to his successors and to us to carry on this fight—a subtler battle against the tyranny not of the Soviets, but of the self.