On the Death of John Paul II

Ronald Rolheiser
April 3, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

"The life and death of each of us has its influence on others." (Romans 14)

This is certainly true for Pope John Paul II. He had a profound influence on our world, perhaps more than any other person in the last half-century. That influence too, as we know, was not merely religious. He helped shape history.

But we must celebrate all of this correctly so that, in his death, we, friend or foe, can receive his spirit and blessing in a way that we were unable to do while he was alive. What's meant by that?

Henri Nouwen, in his later writings, began to develop the idea of how each person's death, like Jesus' death, is meant to release his or her spirit more fully. Here's how he puts it:

"It was only after Jesus had left his disciples that they were able to grasp what he truly meant to them. But isn't that true for all who die?

It is only when we have died that our spirits can completely reveal themselves. ... I know this because I have seen people die in anger and bitterness and with a great unwillingness to accept their mortality. Their deaths became sources of frustration and even guilt for those who stayed behind. Their deaths never became a gift. ...

Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope." (Becoming the Beloved)

John Paul II died as he lived, in a faith that flowed out to the world as warm spirit. His death stopped the world for a moment and everyone alike, powerful and poor, Christian and non-Christian, stood muted, silent, not in the silence that came of frustration, guilt, or unfinished business, but in a hushed reverence that spoke of a man and a life that blessed and suggested that it's wise to stand in silence for awhile and consider what that blessing might be. What might it be?

What particular qualities in John Paul II should we let ourselves be blessed by? I highlight three:

His moral integrity, consistency, and stubbornness.

Both friends and foes agree on this, this man had a stubborn moral integrity and a rare moral consistency. He wasn't a man for moral compromise and (not perfectly but better than most) he showed a moral consistency that neither his disciples on the right or on the left approximate. He was pro-life beyond the more selective compassion of both conservatives and liberals, not just in his stand against abortion and euthanasia, but also in his views on war and capital punishment and, especially, in his stance against the conditions that make for these in the first place. On every side of the ideological spectrum, we could use a mini-pentecost of sorts so as to more fully appropriate his moral consistency.

His openness to the world, other faiths, and other Christians.

He was the most travelled pope ever and those travels, among other things, tried to open Roman Catholicism to the world, to other religions, and to fellow Christians in a new way. He confronted communism, was sought in counsel by heads of state, embraced heads of other religions, gathered young people into the biggest crowds ever assembled, apologized to Judaism, gave Tony Blair communion in his own chapel, and generally (outside perhaps of signing Dominus Jesus) kept opening doors that had been closed for a long time. Neither a new Catholic intolerance nor a false ecumenism done in his name will receive his spirit and blessing.

His raw faith.

Nobody, friend of foe, doubted his faith. For John Paul II, faith was neither a superstitious comfort ("an opium for the people") nor just a set of symbols that inspire us towards what's highest in us and in collective humanity. For him, there's a living God who is Lord of this universe, a Jesus who is divine, and a deep, unalterable, moral brand inside both the structure of the universe and the make-up of the human soul. There's a life after death and there's a life after birth and the latter is meant to be lived in self-sacrificing service of others. His faith was purer than the narrow (and self-serving) literalism of fundamentalism and deeper than the spiritual and moral vagaries of a liberalism not at its best. To celebrate this man's life properly is ask for a faith like his.

What John Paul II left us will not be received through an uncritical admiration that too quickly strips him of his sometimes obvious humanity. We knew too his faults. But, like Jesus, he has gone away and we are left with his spirit. That spirit, now given more purely than ever before, contains powerful nutrients that can both nourish and stretch our souls.