Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Memories of Blessed Pope John Paul II

Way back in 2002 I wrote about Pope John Paul II and his very public aging and suffering. This week as I am reading a great book on the Theology of Body (These Beautiful Bones by Emily Stimpson---review to come soon!) I recalled my thoughts from eleven years ago. I had to dig them up off the old computer and edit a little to take care to take care of some time references, but I left the present tense (I was writing when Blessed John Paul II was alive). 

I share these thoughts with you today on his feast day. 

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us. 
Jim and I meeting (and being blessed by!) Blessed Pope John Paul II. 


Pick Up Your Cross….

This past week, as we saw the Holy Father on TV, I was reminded of conversation Jim and I had in Rome. In 2001 we were on pilgrimage in Rome. As we walked through numerous churches and art galleries, not to mention gift shops, Jim pointed out that in most crucifixes Christ’s head hangs down toward his right shoulder. It was never something I noticed before, so I began to look. Sure enough, in every crucifix I saw, Jesus’ head leaned to the right. This was the case in new and old crucifixes as well as other depictions of the crucifixion. I am not sure why artists down through the centuries have done this, but it seems to be consistent.

Now, as I watched Pope John Paul II on TV I began to reflect on his appearance. Most of the world has noticed that he is looking very frail and hunched over, that he walks with difficulty, that he talks with difficulty and in fact has to wipe drool from his mouth as he speaks, and that even his face muscles seem to strain. He is willingly suffering with the dignity of a true child of God. And even in his suffering his schedule doesn’t let up and his mind is always completely present at every event. He is focused on his role as the Vicar of Christ whether it is a typical Wednesday audience or a beatification Mass.

We noticed all of these things that year as we sat in St. Peter’s Square or St. Peter’s Basilica watching him and listening to his words. We also noticed that he leans his head to one side…his right side.

The Pope and The Cross

As Catholics we know that a priest stands “in the person of Christ”, a fact so real that when he says “This is my body…” it is Christ who speaks through the priest. We also know that the successors of St. Peter represent Christ and His authority in the world. This is why we call the pope the Vicar of Christ. We further know that it is the job of every Christian to imitate Christ, in fact to become so closely connected to Him that he is Christ to the world.

The world of the third millenium has been given a special gift, because we have a man who not only stands “in the person of Christ” (since he is a priest), as the Vicar of Christ (since he is pope), and in daily, hourly imitation of Christ (since he is seeking holiness as all Christians should), but he has become for us a living icon of Christ being crucified on the cross.  This is not to say that the Holy Father is near death, at least no more than any one of us who know not the day or hour, but that he is embracing the suffering of age and infirmity for us, just as Christ embraced the Cross for us.

Don’t Dismiss An Old Man

When we look at this elderly man and see how he so openly loves the aged, the disabled, the young, the family, the single, the infant, it is natural for sentimental feelings to be stirred. We think that he is such a precious old man, like a sweet, affectionate grandfather. Yet, he is still the man who defied Hitler in his youth, who hiked in the wilderness with young people – teaching them about Christ, who has mastered many languages and achieved many degrees, who has written countless letters and encyclicals as well as several books, who brought down the Berlin Wall, and who leads the Catholics of the world to know, love and serve God each day. He keeps up with a rigorous schedule that would exhaust most of us. And he speaks and writes every day out of the wisdom of his years, and with the help of the Holy Spirit in an effort to lead the world to Christ.

Perhaps the world’s tendency to dismiss him with sentimental affection is related to our inability to appreciate the wisdom and experience of our own elderly friends and relatives. Our culture certainly does not honor age as cultures of the past have. 

As Catholics especially, we cannot fall into that trap. We cannot dismiss this Holy Father as practically dead or in the nursing home. We must look at him and see Christ, dying on the Cross, and know it is for us that he suffers, and know that in that suffering truth is triumphing over lies, good is winning the fight against evil, and God is ultimately victorious through His servants here on earth.

To dismiss this particular elderly Polish gentleman is a mistake indeed. He may look frail, and he certainly is suffering, yet he continues to teach the world, in every way possible about Christ, His Church, His plan for mankind, and our role in that plan. In fact, he writes and speaks so much, it seems as if he has no concern for whether or not he is being heard. But do not be mistaken. The Holy Father is surely writing for you and I in the hopes that we will read his words, however, he is also writing for our children, and our children’s children. It may take centuries to unpack the teachings of this papacy of 23 plus years, but his words will not, cannot fall on deaf ears.   

In Imitation of Christ

We must also look at this Christ-figure in our midst and learn to embrace our own suffering and pain. After all, we are all called to pick up our own crosses and follow Christ down the well-worn path toward the glories of heaven. Pope John Paul II suffers in a very ordinary way, especially for an 81 year old man. But his suffering is ennobled and elevated by being united to Christ on the cross. In this way, his suffering becomes a powerful force in the transformation of the world of the third millenium. Our suffering can have this same power when we unite it to Christ.

Seeing Christ in the Holy Father should move us to examine our own life. How do we imitate Christ? Do we love Christ enough to work tirelessly in the service of His Church? For some of us this could mean actual service in a parish, but for must of us, being in service of Christ’s Church is something much simpler. It means being living examples to our children. It means seeking holiness each minute of the day in the way we get up in the morning, drive our cars, treat our co-workers, speak of others, plan our day, and train our children.

When we think of the Holy Father we should ask ourselves how we embrace suffering. Our suffering can be as inconsequential as having to wait in line to buy groceries, or getting caught in traffic on the way to work. It could be morning sickness for the pregnant mom, or even stinky diapers. Or how about that co-worker that always wants to stop you in the hall and talk about his life, but never seems interested in yours? These tiny sufferings, when united with Christ’s suffering on the Cross and willingly endured for the sake of others can become powerful forces in the world. Just imagine how powerful our bigger sufferings can be, such as the loss of loved ones, illness, disabilities, even financial difficulties.

So, the next time you see the Holy Father, whether on ABC, CNN or in person, notice that his head tilts toward his right shoulder, like Christ on the crucifix in your entryway. And remember that we are all called to imitate Christ in all ways, especially in His suffering. And perhaps we will have the courage to endure whatever difficulty we encounter, large or small, willingly and with dignity and allow ourselves to join Christ on His cross, as Pope John Paul II does each day.

Here is another blog post about Blessed John Paul II reposted in 2011 and written in 2001.  

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post! And to have that picture to share with your children as well. It makes our faith even more tangible for those little ones, doesn't it?