Early last Tuesday afternoon, while glued to my Japanese manufactured television set, I watched as the American built MD-11 operated by an Italian airline and bearing a Polish Pope, taxied to a stop on Canadian soil. Soil, which was to be, for a few days, home to Catholic youth from just about every country under the sun.
I was struck by the complexity of our interlocking world, by the amount of cooperation, the degree of common cause, and the level of mutual trust upon which each of these realities depended for existence, execution and popular acceptance. As I thought about it, I became aware of the constitutive elements of this scene. The elements of forgiveness, hope and respect for the common good of all concerned. Before my eyes was unfolding an illustration of nations, once bitter enemies, now long at peace and cooperating in a manner which would have been beyond the wildest dreams of those who dreaded each sunrise in the early 1940ís.
My musings were interrupted by a brief newscast. More explosions and more deaths in the Middle East. The AIDS pandemic was spreading throughout the heart of Africa. The cradle of humanity where our first ancestors gazed upon Creation and wondered about the meaning of life. Someone wise has said that the first sign of civilization is when the strong begin to care for the weak. Why are we not doing something? Why are we not making a difference? Then came the chilling news that Al-Quaida is still alive and thought to be plotting a sequel to September 11th. One step forward and two steps backward. When will we get it right? How will we get it right?
I am a Catholic priest. I believe with all my being that the answer lies within the person and mission of Jesus Christ. As these thoughts ebb and flow, I became aware of the fact that there was still no sign of His Holiness. I pictured him being loaded onto the elevated box of a catering truck, well out of range of the cameras, and on the far side of the airplane. In my mindís eye, I saw him, like a pallet of empty meal containers, being lowered to the tarmac. I pictured John Paul II angry and impotent but above all frustrated.
An elderly, frail, stooped figure in white, appeared in the forward-most door way and with hardly a pause, began the torturous descent toward the red carpet and stunned dignitaries. I wept with pride and in sympathy. Here was a living symbol of the answer. He could not tell us WHEN we were going to get it right but he could tell us HOW. Here, indeed, like Jesus, was a man for others. Once again I was reminded of Jesusí words: "Peace be with you, a peace the world cannot give is my gift to you." How much clearer can you get than that? A peace that the world cannot, of itself, attain. A peace that requires His input, His gift or as we say, His Grace.
John Paul had arrived and was anxious to share that message of direction and hope with all of us but particularly with the younger members of his flock. And they had come in their thousands in response to his voice.
The chief shepherd of the Catholic Church is a complex man whose world image is multi-faceted. To those who, for whatever reason, despise all that is Catholic, he is the Devil incarnate, the supreme commander of thousands of money-grubbing child molesters like me and those whom I have managed to brainwash. To others, his every word, every opinion, every response, every attitude is to be equated with the will of God. That too is an extreme.
In his youth he saw his boyhood Jewish playmates carted off to be starved and gassed in the Nazi death camps. He struggled toward the priesthood under post war Soviet repression and, long before he was ordained, he suffered the premature deaths of both his parents and his brother. This, then, is a man of well-tempered steel who has little patience with the self-centred, well pampered, feint hearted among us. He is a man who speaks with authority. His is the authority that comes not only from his office but from his having paid his dues many times over.
To-dayís youth are quick to recognize that authenticity, so they listen to him. Whether or not they adopt his every position, they will be touched and influenced to some extent by him. And that is the way it should be. He would be the first to defend their essential freedom of conscience. Theirs and ours.
Does Pope John Paul have any faults? Is it possible that some of his opinions and decisions will someday prove to have been objectively wrong and possibly excessively autocratic? I think it most likely. When he asks for our prayers he means it.
And so to him I proudly say: "Thank you Holy Father for your example of faith and courage and for so often being that clear voice in the wilderness."