I can hardly say what Pope John Paul II meant in the larger scheme of things. I suspect determining that will take the better part of a century of careful, dispassionate thought, far removed from the idiot canned analysis of right now. Hence the term "afterimage"--we are all going to be blinking and trying to focus on what he meant for a long, long time to come. Was he flawless? No. I agree with just about every syllable of this Rod Dreher column. There are other areas where honest faithful Catholics can find fault--but I'll save that for after the funeral.
Moreover, while I understand it, I'm not quite on board with the whole "the Great" phenomenon. Let's all take a deep breath first, and then take the time to truly study the man and his words first. I think eventually the tag will fit, but for now I'll stand with Treebeard and avoid being hasty.
What I can do is say what the Pope meant to me as someone who converted to Catholicism during his reign. For my entire adulthood, he was The Pope, a man bestride the world like a colossus. Like, love or hate him, the one thing that you could never do was ignore him.
A lot of this is a function of Western culture, which is many respects was and still is an increasingly-estranged child of the Catholic Church. I have a theory about Americans as a people: deep down, (1) we are all default Brits and equally so, (2) we are all default Catholics.
Here's the proof: if you hear the term "the Queen," who do you think of? If it's anyone other than Elizabeth II, you are lying. I don't care if you're a Southie from Boston or Cheech Marin--The Queen is that white haired lady on the cover of People, not the wife of Juan Carlos, or the titular head of the Netherlands, or any other female monarch. Pleasant though she may be. There's only one "the Queen" in America, and she's British.
Likewise "the Church." Lenny Bruce was right--there's only one "the Church," and that's Roman Catholicism. It even percolates into popular culture--as fellow papist Roger Ebert notes, every time you have to battle supernatural evil in the movies, it's always Catholicism that supplies the heavy artillery. Thus, when an American hears "the Church" in conversations, he doesn't think "Methodist." He thinks "Catholic."
Even as an adolescent lapsed Methodist, I knew that The Church With The Definite Article was qualititatively different. And so was its head bishop. All Americans know this instinctively. Even the press. Yes, even Christiane Amanpour. Try another comparison: when the Vatican is considering a statement about genetically modified foods, it's news. When the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A. and other mainline Protestant leaders (Frank & Friends!) condemn the federal budget--cue the crickets. Sure, the evangelicals are something of an exception: MSM has a growing awareness (and disdain) for the evangelicals, and a recognition of counter-culturalism there, too. But there's no focus--no one person or institution that can presume to speak on behalf of what is admittedly a very diverse group. A middleweight with a wicked hook, but hard to pin down.
But for the once mighty-mainline, the unkindest cut of all: being ignored. For all its flaws, the media knows a lightweight when it sees one. The mainliners float like a butterfly and sting like one, too.
"Lose this number until you ordain a transsexual, buddy."
The Pope--this Pope especially--was a heavyweight. Even I could see that. He travelled constantly--to my humble home state, no less--and, even at a distance, seemed fearless.
Which brings me to this: I can define him using less than five words: "Be Not Afraid," and "Hope." I can comprehend his leadership by using each as a lens.
Be Not Afraid!
Christ has triumphed over death--what are you afraid of? The travel, the meetings with millions, the preaching, and even some of the things that did and do strike me as dubious, like Assisi--all can be better understood by realizing that he simply was not afraid.
Christ has triumphed over death--why should we be afraid of the prayers of animists? Christ has triumphed over death--I am not going to let the communists intimidate me. Christ has triumphed over death--the West needs to learn that it is killing its own soul. Whatever else can be said about him, it is clear that he never feared for himself or his reputation.
As in the Christian variety, not the mindless secular kind (usually called "optimism"). The latter is the mindset that tells you to "turn that frown upside down," or says "It looks like someone has a case of the Mondays--cheer up!" Christian hope is not like that. Rarely noted is that there is a grim realism underlying even his most hopeful statements. Consider, for example, the projection of "a new springtime of evangelization." To even float such a statement requires a recognition that, for right now, we are in the middle of February. At the latest. The important thing is that hope compels us to recognize that spring will come. Hope tells us that no matter how long and difficult the haul, with Christ we, too, will triumph. Hope also does not deny the difficulties.
Before the Walls of Minas Tirith....
Finally, I am thankful for his call to arms. He woke us to the fact that we are in a serious battle for the soul of humanity itself. Everywhere, and from every direction, humans seem bent on effacing the Imago Dei from their persons, a massive act of self-mutilation unseen in history. By calling attention to it and giving it a name--the Culture of Death--he gave us a chance to confront it. Moreover, his unrelenting ecumenism also gave Catholics the prospect of having some surprising allies in the fight. Go here for Exhibit A--an impossibility fifty years ago. Also see Hentoff, Nat. By the way, Catholics--don't forget that the ecumenism of the trenches is your opportunity to witness to others. That being, of course, part of the idea. Don't botch it.
Things were such with this man that the papacy wasn't the huge stumbling block for my conversion that it is for others. Without going into detail about my own story (look for it in Surprised by Truth MXI: Yep--That's Pretty Well Everybody), I remember reacting to the anti-papal polemics I found with something on the order of "Antichrist? But this guy's Polish...." Beyond that, there was the obvious Christian witness of the man. If the Catholics can produce someone like this, there has to be something to it...
Finally, I have three concrete reasons to be thankful for John Paul II's unwavering, across-the-board witness to life: their names are Madeleine, Dale III and Rachel. I honestly doubt that I would have all three of my children but for that witness. The world of More Stuff Now! says having three children in three years is deeply stupid (it certainly can be very difficult, there's no sugarcoating that). However, their beatific faces--and the fearless, hopeful smile of John Paul II--object. The latter four are right.
Goodbye, Holy Father--you will be greatly missed.
[Update, 4/8/05: Slightly revised in response to a good point from Christopher Johnson, and tweaked here and there. It will stay here, though--I can't move it to the top.]