Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Pope

“Crossing The Threshold of Hope” by Pope John Paul II began as an idea for a television interview. Questions that were to serve as a basis for the interview, the first of its kind, were submitted to the pope by Italian journalist Vitorio Messori. But scheduling proved impossible, and the idea was abandoned.

However, not for nothing was John Paul II called “the pope of surprises.” The journalist’s questions, which had engaged the pope’s interest, lay on his desk for some time, and a few months later a large envelope was delivered to Messori. The pope had carefully considered and answered his questions.

It is a deeply philosophical and theological exploration of religious truths-- though, oddly enough, written in easily understood prose -- because the pope himself was a serious intellectual, a man whose faith had been internalized by deep meditation and prayer.

On the Sunday after his death, my wife and I attended church at a Polish mass in Vernon. When the service had been concluded, the pastor addressed his stricken flock, who had come together to receive the balm of a healing word.

The pope, he said, had visited his beloved Krakow, there to deliver to the Poles a message that would set them free – “Be not afraid.” His best friend at the time, an ambitious but devout priest, had resolved to keep up with the pope in prayer. Full of a rare enthusiasm, the priest boasted that he would not sleep while the pope was awake.

Prayers began after supper. At nine o’clock, the priest, looking in on the pope, found him still at prayer and returned to his devotions: and so at ten o’clock, at eleven o’clock… At two o’clock in the morning, finding the pope deeply immersed in prayer, the exhausted priest finally went to bed. It turned out that prayer was, for this pope, a spiritual restorative; somewhat like a brisk walk up a mountain, which the pope also did frequently. Clarity of thought was his special talent, a virtue perfected in prayer.

The Poles at the time of the pope’s visit were a deeply religious people. The words he delivered to them, “Be not afraid,” were multi-layered. On the one hand, a pope that had sprung from their soil and rich heritage was bringing to his people a religious message: “Be not afraid” were the words addressed to Jesus’ mother when the archangel Michael brought her news that God soon would be leaping in her womb. On the other hand, the message was political: Be not afraid in your struggle with Soviet totalitarianism, for God is with you.

For communists, the message was worse than a call to arms: The pope was calling upon the Poles to put on the armor of their faith.

Is it any wonder than an ambitious priest could not best the pope at prayer? The pope returned to this theme in many of his writings. It may well be the central message of his pontificate.

And the message is this: God is not a clockwork maker sitting in the heavens outside his self-sufficient handiwork. He is present in the world as the author of “the good’ and its sustainer. The creative act in Genesis, where it is said that God made the world “and it was good,” is a continuum, still unfolding. The God of Christians is a God who is “with us”– in every sense of the words. The pope rejected as a categorical error the whole line of thought from Descartes through Hegel and beyond that diminishes man’s freedom by relegating the author and sustainer of it to a cardboard cutout removed from the world and indifferent to it.

The extreme rationalism of the enlightenment period led inescapably to the French Revolution, in which the spiritual and moral patrimony of Christianity was torn from its evangelical foundation, a breech that rejected “God the Redeemer.” From the French Revolution, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to the materialism of the soviet state, which sought to extirpate the spiritual element in man.

That effort finally came to wreck upon the rock of Peter. God was with the Poles, as he was with the servant of his word.

Christian obedience, the pope said in "Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” is not, as Hegel thought, the obedience of a slave to his master. It is the “filial obedience” of a son or a daughter to a loving father who desires “their good.”

Now that this man has crossed the threshold of hope, those who loved him, Christian or not, will pray that God is with him.

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