This is the day Pope John Paul II is laid to rest. Catholics throughout the world are mourning the loss of their leader. The Church and its members have gone through this sort of thing several times per century, since the beginning of Christianity. Death, in and of itself, is a natural process, and the Cardinal of Rome had lived a long and productive life.
It is his productive life, however, which makes his passing so huge an event. Even as a non-Catholic, I have felt greatly affected by his life, and thus feel the pain of losing him. I may not believe in the same religious practices, I may not follow the same faith, but I recognize a great man when I am forced to. There is no denying that Karol Wojtyla grew up to be a Great Man. Arm in arm with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the three of them opened the floodgates to freedom. For generations to come, a great debt will be owed to them, to him, for having kept a moral core of unbending iron.
John Paul II took over the Church at a time of upheaval. Still reeling from the overhaul brought about a generation earlier in Vatican II, the Church’s worldwide attendance had continued to drop, comparatively. It was no longer viewed by many as a growing, living organ of faith. John Paul took it upon himself to travel the globe, to meet and commune, and to begin gradually the process of cleaning away the many diseases within the Church, from the rampant Marxism in South and Central America to the growing sex scandals of North America and Europe. It is an ongoing process, and a bold measure for a man of this church. It is never easy to clean house. The Pope seemed unafraid of the impossible.
Largely through the words and actions of Pope John Paul II, Poland saw its first free elections. By the words and actions of John Paul II, the Iron Curtain was brought down. Even before he became the Vicar of Christ, he was the embodiment of all I was taught a Christian should be. He maintained his faith, knew right from wrong, and acted upon his understanding. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he saved the lives of many Jews, meanwhile continuing his studies in theology -- both acts which could have brought about his death.
Many of those he saved remained his friends for the rest of their days. In fact, he went on to befriend many more “enemies of the faith”, and became the first Pope to visit -- as a welcomed guest -- the synagogue in Rome. He traveled to Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall. There, the Pope stood against Antisemitism -- the first pope to do so in modern history-- writing this prayer on the wall:
“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
While his friendships were lifelong, his enemies were almost immediately forgiven. The man who tried to assassinate him, Mehmet Ali Agca, received a visit from the Pope for just such a purpose. He received leaders of all faiths, and even some of no established faith, in order to discuss a way toward peace for all. Thus, in his final days, while he lay in his apartment, his body ever diminishing, the crowds gathered in the Holy City, among them teams of cameras and journalists for al Jazeera and several other hardcore Islamic networks, covering the events with genuinely respectful, sometimes reverential, tones.
We may not always have agreed with the man, but he gave us good reason to hold him in high esteem. Pope John Paul II was a man of vision, bearing the tools of courage, conviction, gentility, decency, clarity, humility, generosity, and most of all faith.
On the day of his funeral, while we look at ourselves and wonder how the world will survive the loss of such a guiding light, we also may have reason to rejoice. Aside from the belief among the faithful, that he is raised up to heaven and all his suffering is ended, there is the gardener’s view: this man planted a world of seeds, and spring is here.
Update: For a powerful examination of His Excellency's impact, I recommend reading Peggy Noonan's column at the Opinion Journal.