Thoughts on Pope John Paul II

Author: Jaacob Thomas

Just some thoughts I have on the life of the Pope John Paul II

As one reflects – often in wonder, on the life and work of Pope John Paul II, the words that seem to capture his very spirit and essence are: ‘generations to come ,it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood ever walked upon this earth..’

These words, written in a time far removed from this one, still work their magic across the years. Penned by Einstein, they represented his tribute to the life and legacy of Gandhi, the man who had brought down a mighty Empire. By any reckoning, these must be one of the most eloquent tributes ever. There is a sublime, almost transcendental quality to them – with the power to move the heart and fire the spirit.

Far be it from me, to draw parallels between the lives and achievements of Gandhi and the Pope -they are clear for all to see. Neither will I attempt to delve into the myriad aspects of the Pope’s very fascinating life. Instead,I’d like to take a little trip down memory lane and touch upon what he meant to one such as I.

It seems like only yesterday that the newspapers were headlining the shocking news of the sudden death of Pope John Paul I. His reign, though ripe with promise and possibilities, had been a tragically short one. Then a few days later, the world first heard the news of the election of his successor. In a very surprising turn of events, it turned out to be a young cardinal from behind the Iron Curtain. My mind immediately harked back to a novel I had read years before. This novel had begun with the election of a Pope in his fifties, from behind the Iron Curtain. The prediction made in that novel – very far fetched for those times – had come to pass with an eerie and almost uncanny accuracy.

In the years that followed, like everyone else, one remained caught up in the day to day business of existence with scant regard, or little passion for events taking place on the world’s stage.

However unbeknownst to one, a sea change within, had already been set in train. Perhaps it had stolen upon one quite imperceptibly and innocuously, on an evening early in autumn, during the Pope’s visit.

I still remember the way the news had spread like wildfire through our little office: the Pope would very shortly be driving past. A few of us rushed down and stood waiting on the sidewalk in front. What struck me as we stood there, was the way people’s eyes were shining with the sheer excitement of it all. I seem to recall that it was a particularly beautiful evening the skies all lit up with the golden hues of twilight, with a slight nip in the air. Soon, we heard the sirens of a motorcade rushing towards us. And before we knew it, the Pope mobile was flashing past at high speed. But it had all happened far too quickly and we caught only a fleeting glimpse of the Pope. However, I can still picture very clearly – as if it had happened only recently, the Pope strikingly fair, dressed in blazing white robes, standing quite erect, smiling and waving to the crowds lining the street so intensely alive so full of joie de-vivre.

Regrettably, it was only much later, during his waning years, that one really began to pay attention to the footage being aired about him from time to time. It became particularly poignant to see a Pope, once so full of vitality -who had bestrode the world like a colossus, now crippled by age and disease and reduced to a shade of his former self. In a strange way though, this only served to bring to the fore his indomitable will and his dogged determination to soldier on in the teeth of excruciating pain and suffering.

In the end, death may well have spelt an merciful end to all the physical torment he had endured, bravely and without a murmur . However, to one such as he, death must surely mean far more. Could it be perhaps, a gateway to a glorious, richly deserved afterlife, forever in the presence of the Divine, in everlasting union with the Saints and all who went on before?

In the midst of all the eulogies to his life and his ministry,it is very meet and right that we pause to reflect on those who, by their life and example, had first set him on the path to the greatness he eventually attained. Very likely, he too would not have wished it otherwise.

Clearly, his was a spirit forged and tempered in the crucible of his earliest years. Few tragedies can be more devastating than the loss of one’s entire family. For then, one is left to face life completely and utterly alone. Yet, this is precisely what happened to the young Karol Woytjila.

He was still very young when his mother passed away, all on a sudden. Never again would he, the child , know the tender, unconditional love that only a mother can give. Never more would he feel her warm and comforting presence – sheltering and caring for him. The shock of such a bereavement has blighted the lives of many a lesser person.

A few years later, came the second shock : when his much older brother – whom he must surely have adored and looked up to – was tragically cut down in the prime of his life, by scarlet fever .

However, through all this tragedy, the one person who emerged as the real hero was his father. Despite age and infirmity, the old man gamely stepped into the breach, to fill the void left by these deaths as best he as could. He nurtured the young lad – being father, mother and brother to him. The Pope’s childhood friend Jerzy Kluger speaks of the Pope’s father with an almost unbounded admiration : how he’d make it a point to keep a spotlessly clean house how he managed to support his son on a very meagre pension by scrimping and saving – very often stitching the clothes his son needed and also of how he’d often regale them with stirring tales of Ancient Greece and Rome. On several occasions, Kluger had even witnessed father and son playing soccer with a rolled up bundle of rags. However, the old man’s health kept failing rapidly. Apparently, just before he died, he made his son promise to take up the priesthood.

Looking back, it is almost as if all his immediate family had died in order that, through their deaths, he might live. However, one can’t help but wonder, if in their very last moments, God had not vouchsafed to each member of his family, a glorious vision of all that lay ahead for the young Karol.

With the death of his father, he was all alone in the world. It is at this juncture that Fate, or the Hand of God – intervened. A tailor, Jan Tirinovsky, spotted him and took him under his wing. In Tirinovsky, young Karol at last came in direct contact with a truly great soul. Tirinovsky was said to be a mystic, with an extremely very rich inner life. Gathering around him a group of young people, he became their friend, father and guide, passing on to them much of his innate spiritual wisdom. He expounded to them the teachings of that great Christian mystic St. John of the Cross and this may well have had a deep and abiding influence in their lives, inducing many among them to dedicate their lives to the service of God. In those, the very darkest years – with deep despair all around and no light at the end of the tunnel – it was Tirinovsky who emerged, to become the young Woyjtila’s mentor and guiding light. And it is he, who has been credited with having inspired the young to find his true calling as a priest.

My final thoughts on the Pope have to do with some very powerful images that linger yet in my mind. Two in particular, stand out from amongst all the others :

One is of him ,old and infirm, being helped into the Grotto of Massabiele. As he sits there, deep in prayer and contemplation, the tears pour down his cheeks. This is the image that affected me deeply when I first saw it – and continues to move me, down to this very day, in more ways than I can imagine.

The other is a much earlier one of him in the prime of his life, addressing a gathering of thousands. In a voice like thunder, he rails at rampant, unbridled Global Capitalism – calling it a monstrous crime against humanity. I can still picture him standing there, tall and erect. His words ring out loud and clear – music to the ears of all the oppressed people’s of the world. It is all the more remarkable, when one realizes that this is the very same person who had brought down an Empire based on the very antithesis of Capitalism. To John Paul II, trivial, empty creeds and shibboleths were as chaff before the wind. He towered far above all such mindless cant. The only thing that really mattered and was of passionate concern to him, was Humanity the fundamental God given right of every man, woman and child to a decent and honourable life.

Alas now, as the saying goes: ‘he belongs to the ages’ – leaving the world a far poorer place, for his passing.

No farewell to him could be more fitting, than the immortal words of Shakespeare on the death of Hamlet:

…’Good Night ,sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’