Editorís Note: This article, which ran in the May issue of The Jewish Voice, commemorates the death of Pope John Paul II. As a non-Catholic, I canít get too worked up about the theological disputes that roil the church; however, I think that even atheists and agnostics can admire the man, John Paul, while remaining unconcerned (or even disapproving) about the office he held. There werenít very many monumental figures in the second half of the 20th century. This pope, along with a handful of others, such as Michael Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela, was one of the most important, and one of the best.
All men die, but great men seldom die. This is because there are so few great men. On April 2, a man who transcended his vocation and his office to become one of the few towering figures of the second half of the 20th century left our midst.
Iím an atheist. I make no apologies for this, and wonít even try to explain it. In this context, itís largely irrelevant. Suffice to say, I have no belief in Jehovah, Allah, the Bible, the Koran, Abraham, Jesus or Mohammed. And Catholic dogma means nothing to me. But if you assumed this means I donít care about the death of John Paul II, the leader of an organization to which Iíve never belonged, youíd be wrong.
Thereís a difference between a man and his vocation, between a human being and his office. If you donít like the president, for example, itís a free country, so no law mandates that you admire the man who sits in the Oval Office, whether heís George W. Bush or William Jefferson Clinton.
However, if you respect your country, you should respect its legitimately elected representatives. Nearly everyone in the United States has benefited from being part of the longest continuously operating democracy in the history of the planet. This isnít jingoism or even patriotism, itís realism.
Thatís why even those Americans who think George Bush, the man, is a moron should be careful how they speak about our president, especially in a public forum. Disrespect toward the office and the democracy that office symbolizes is different from a disagreement on policy.
The reverse is also true. A man can be far more admirable than the office he holds. This is, I suspect, the view of many atheists and agnostics with respect to the recently deceased pontiff. Nonbelievers disagreed with many of the doctrines John Paul espoused, but in this context, theology is largely irrelevant. Instead, letís remember how much this monumental figure did that all decent and thoughtful people can admire, regardless of their beliefs or their lack of them.
No one admires hypocrisy. Unlike American conservatives, who reserve their most-zealous reverence for the lives of the unborn and the vegetative, this man supported the idea of the sanctity of all life, even including men on death row. And he has consistently opposed war, including the current carnage in Iraq, even when his opposition made him appear politically naÔve.
First and foremost, John Paul is to be admired for his integrity. Many of those whoíve labeled him ďconservative,Ē ďtraditionalistĒ and even ďreactionaryĒ forget that, in 1992, this pope admitted the Church had been wrong to condemn Copernicus and Galileo. And, in 1996, he overruled Pope Pius XII by conceding the scientific veracity of evolution.
Anyone with a love of humanity admires compassion, and this pope nurtured it in ways previously unimagined in the Vatican. What other pontiff worshipped in synagogues, prayed at Jerusalemís Western Wall and apologized for the suffering Christianity has inflicted on the Jews (as well women and minorities) over the millennia? John Paul did more to cleanse Catholicism of anti-Semitism than all of his predecessors combined.
Everyone admires courage. John Paul became a seminarian in Poland during the Nazi occupation, when it wasnít the prudent thing to do. Later, he would stand up to the Communists in Poland, and his support of Solidarity was crucial to the successful conclusion of the Cold War. If heíd done nothing else during his long pontificate, his role in the dismantling of the Iron Curtain should earn him the worldís gratitude.
Most of us find it hard to forgive those who harm us, but we still admire this ability in others. This pope visited the prison cell of Mehmet Ali Agca, the man whoíd tried to kill him, and publicly forgave a man of a religion and a quality of character radically different from his own. Even atheists find Christís exoneration of his executioners from the cross one of the most-moving stories about Jesus. How like this ideal was John Paulís visit, and how few of us ó Jew, Christian or atheist ó would have been able to do the same.
The wish of Christians, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers alike should be that the next pope have John Paulís qualities of character. I suspect a few more popes of his stature will make Catholics feel better about their church. A couple more like John Paul, and unbelievers will feel less threatened by Catholicism and begin to view Catholics more like brothers in the human family.
This isnít just a sad time for Catholics around the world. Itís a time of mourning for all people of good will, regardless of their beliefs, or their lack of them. Dona nobis pacem.
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