A Great Man Passes Away: Pope John Paul II, in memoriam

Before 4 this morning, Manila time, Pope John Paul II has… gone home to Christ.

I have never met him personally. In fact, I always maintained – not without a bit of regret – that I was one of the very few Ateneans who did not help in World Youth Day when it came to the Philippines.

But one need not have shook his hand to have felt the sheer… presence of the man. One need only look at the thousands, the millions, who turn out just to see him. The many voices shouting, “JP II, WE LOVE YOU!!!”, and the sincerity in those voices to know that this was a man who touched the Human Soul in such an extraordinary way.

And to think that he was Pope of this day and age, a time when the advances in technology, science and culture has largely… trivialized faith. Or distorted it. Despite it all, John Paul II was respected, honored… and loved.

I think some of the most powerful images of the Holy Father were the ones where he comes into contact with the youth. The young of this age are well known for their conflict with the older generations, with authority, with orthodoxy, with conservative thought. “Rebellious” and “disrespectful” are common terms for the youth of today. Yet this man was loved by the young. I have heard somewhere that the adoration of the youth for Pope John Paul II could be likened to the treatment given to rock stars.

I have disagreed with some of his positions, particularly those dealing with gender. One of my theology professors once said that Vatican II made all three primary vocations co-equal, but it was JP2 who “restored” the Augustinian concept of the primacy of the priesthood.

Yet he is the Vicar of Christ. And not only that, but he was a man who deserved one’s respect.

Perhaps because you knew that he was… genuine. When he showed how much he cared for the person in front of him, you knew he cared. It wasn’t show. It was real. And maybe because I’m a young person myself, his special attention for the youth – this old, powerful man, the representation of ultimate authority and conservatism, yet placed the young first in his heart and understood what they went through, their pain and their confusion in a rapidly changing world – has always touched me deeply.

Part of me says that we need him more now, when so much hope and light have been taken from the world at the turn of this century. Everyday seems like we are coming closer to the Gibsonesque illustration of the future.

But even in his leaving, in his “coming home” to God, JP2 may have left us something precious, his last lesson to the world. Some people were saying that it was bad for them to show his slow progression to death. But he had a final lesson to teach. About life and the dignity of the Human Spirit, of the power of love and faith.

And even at his weakest, at death’s door, he still fulfills his duty as God’s Vicar, as the leader of His people. How many people have stood united in prayer, even as we stood on deathwatch? His death seems to have, even for a moment, eased tensions between the religions as Muslims, Jews, Anglicans and others prayed alongside us Catholics for this great man.

And maybe he has left me one final lesson, too. Maybe the one I have been looking for these past few months.

Thank you, John Paul II. I raise my Sword to you in salute, not just because you are the Vicar of my Lord, but because you are a person worthy of our respect and our love.

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