I am not a Roman Catholic. There is also, frankly, much in the Catholic Church with which I disagree. But I joined with the Catholic world in welcoming Pope John Paul II to Canada recently. Not only because he is one of the greatest leaders of our time, but also because he is a pure and cleansing wind in an often stale and smoggy world, a clear voice of reason breaking through the cacophony of ugly shouts and screams.
I recall when the Pope came to Britain some years ago. He was a strong, young, vibrant man then. He still had that masculine solidity that was, and to an extent still is, his hallmark. I remember walking into the front room, where we had the family television. There, on the screen, was John Paul. He was holding a Down’s syndrome little girl in his arms. So tight, so loving, so true. This was not some gesture. He was not doing this because he had to. He was doing it because he could not help himself.
Then I turned to where my father, a Jewish man whose family had fled persecution in Catholic Poland, was sitting. He was crying. My dad was crying. Partly because of the sheer love and humanity being shown, but also because he knew in his heart and soul that the man he was watching was a friend. A bridge of compassion had been built. And this Pope may be the greatest bridge-builder of modern times.
To Catholics, he is the direct descendant of Peter, the man named to be head of the church by Jesus Christ while He was present on earth here amongst us. Not being a Catholic, I don’t embrace this interpretation. But I do see him as one of the great rays of light reflected by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Like all genuine Christian leaders, he cannot be defined or limited by political labels. He will champion the family, marriage, childhood, the unborn and the old. Then, simultaneously, he will speak up for the poor, the weak, the developing world, the working class. He understands that traditional notions of left and right do not apply any longer. Which is why alleged Christians, including Catholics, on the archaic left in particular, have so many problems with him.
Some critics argue that John Paul has more time and concern for Africa, Asia and Latin America than he does for Western Europe and North America. Possibly true. But that might just be because too many of us in North America and Europe have more time for our bank accounts and fashion statements than we do for the permanent things that genuinely matter.
He has reached out to Jews, Moslems and Hindus, has extended friendship to all races and nations, has dragged the Vatican bureaucracy into the modern world, has rid Catholicism of much of its 1960s trivial relativism and has made the papacy significant again.
He has redefined what it means to be an orthodox and faithful Catholic. This was too often becoming the preserve of reactionary eccentrics and sinister extremists. Those types still exist. But a whole new generation of dynamic people has been empowered by the man. New and affordable private Catholic schools, intelligent and stable young men in the seminaries, challenging and well-produced Catholic magazines, a critical embrace of the culture.
Opponents are offended by much of this. In fact, they’re frightened. Their ranks are thin and declining, while the new conservatism is growing by the day. So the old attacks are wheeled out time and time again. The Pope refuses to ordain women and support homosexuality, they say to anyone who will listen.
But logic cries out to be heard. Nobody is forced to be a Catholic. If you want female priests and gay marriage, join another church and rise above the modern malaise of neurotic selfishness. Criticize the Pope if you like, but don’t criticize him for being a Roman Catholic. That’s like hissing at the sky because it is blue.