The Life of Pope John Paul II

Mark Shiner

You might not expect a ten-year-old Protestant kid to spend hours in front of the television watching the news from the Vatican regarding the death of a pope. But back in 1978 the teachers in our school district had gone on strike, leaving us all to fend for ourselves for a number of weeks. And back in 1978 you had few media options: you were either watching the papal succession or you weren’t watching television. And so, in those times when only the narcotic of television would satisfy, I watched the election of John Paul II. I remember being excited for no apparent reason when the white smoke finally appeared, signaling that the Pope had been chosen. Now I am an adult and a Catholic and John Paul II has been Pope for most of my life. I had no idea as a child that I was witnessing the beginning of a papacy that would so transform the world, the church, and even my own life. The legacy that John Paul has left the church and the world is vast. Rather than try to summarize his whole life and ministry, I will just point out a few aspects of his legacy that I think are especially relevant to our common life at Colgate. We are more than our jobs and our appetites. John Paul II saw that there were particularly dehumanizing aspects of unbridled capitalism and Western-style democratic societies. In the encyclical Centesimus annus (1991), John Paul wrote, “Economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man [sic] is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.” Finding our identity in what we have, what we achieve, who we know, and how successfully we can sate our appetites demeans us as human beings. The poor and the marginalized deserve our special concern. John Paul spent more time traveling in the developing world than virtually any other world leader of his time. In an age where a lot of lip service is paid to the idea of concern for the poor, John Paul actually expended considerable time, energy, and church funds to address the inequities between the world’s rich and poor. And his work was not limited to work within the church-the Pope met with world leaders, rock stars like Bono (an amusingly illuminative article about Bono’s time with the John Paul can be found on the USA Today web site), and all people of good will who shared his concerns for the poor. John Paul’s ministry reminds us all that our commitment to human dignity requires us to use all means at our disposal to improve the lot of all people, not just our friends or allies. Reconciliation is possible. One of the greatest testimonies of John Paul’s pontificate is that we may hope for reconciliation even where the deepest rifts seem to exist. John Paul’s efforts toward reconciliation with Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and countless others remind us that the painful work of reconciliation ennobles and empowers us for building the human community. Obviously rifts that are hundreds or even thousands of years old cannot be healed quickly. Still, John Paul has guided the Church in that direction, and has reminded us that we can hope for reconciliation in even the worst situations. We can hope that his example can guide all of us to overcome the much smaller divisions, hurts, and conflicts that divide our community. John Paul II has been a part of my life, in one way or another, since I was a ten-year-old couch potato. I can thank the teachers of my school district for inadvertently introducing me to this remarkable person. I have been challenged by his witness to become a better, more compassionate person. John Paul was not perfect-no one is. But he was a sign to the world of the primacy of love, generosity, and reconciliation. It is a legacy to cherish. Requiescat in pace, Holy Father.