The Passing of John Paul II
In his fictionalized account of the death of Socrates, Plato makes the philosopher’s friend Crito ask him: “Socrates, what are your instructions to me and the others about your children or anything else? What can we do that would please you most?” “Nothing new, Crito,” Socrates responds, “but what I am always saying, that you will please me and mine and yourselves by taking good care of your own selves in whatever you do . . . but if you neglect your own selves, and are unwilling to live following the tracks, as it were, of what we have said now and on previous occasions, you will achieve nothing.”
The Death of a Saint
It may seem inappropriate to compare the death of a pagan philosopher with that of a Christian saint, Pope John Paul II; but I do so advisedly. In the Phaedo, Plato recreates the emotions of Socrates’ friends, their praise of his life, and their sense of their own loss, in order to remind the reader that these fine feelings and words are worthless if they are not accompanied by the kind of life that Socrates, by his own life and teaching, demanded of those who knew him.
In these hours and days following the Holy Father’s death, those of us who have followed his life, who have listened to his teaching, and who have come to love him, may experience strong emotions. We praise him and hear him praised, and we feel his loss. But this is not the time for fine words and feelings, if they are not accompanied by deeds. Indeed, there is no such time. The only possible response to the Holy Father’s passing—the one fitting response to the life and death of a saint—is a new conversion, a firm commitment to follow Jesus Christ more closely from this moment on.
John Paul II will be remembered as the pope who, embodying the teaching and spirit of the second Vatican Council, led the Church of Christ into its third millennium. His legacy, therefore, can be summed up in the urgent call that he addressed to us on the Feast of the Epiphany, 2001, at the beginning of the new millennium: “Put out into the deep,” he wrote, into the deep waters of holiness. It is true that the Holy Father provided many new insights into the Gospel and into Christian life. But we would be doing him an injustice if we failed to recognize that his great task, the task of every pastor, was to repeat untiringly the simple truth that Christians have always known: that God’s will for man has been revealed in Christ, and that “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
As we honor the life and death of John Paul II, we must understand that anything less than a new and deeper conversion would be an insult to his memory; anything less than a commitment to holiness would miss the point of his life. Great and talented men in worldly affairs are for admiring, but saints are for imitating. Nor can we allow ourselves to think that the holiness that Christ asks of us, and that the Holy Father preached, is something different than the holiness that he strove for each day. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Christian perfection, to which each of us is called, is the perfection of charity, of love for God and neighbor. It means getting up each day with the following question burning in our minds: How—today, now—can I challenge myself more deeply, to live in the presence of God, and to spend each hour of work, conversation, or rest in service to those around me? Quietly, without fanfare, but relentlessly, with grace and courage, how can I love? It means, above all, a life of prayer, not only as the path to an effective love for others but also and especially because God has loved us first. There are no saints without prayer—without intense, continual prayer, prayer that is no less demanding for being, as it should be, adapted to the requirements of our daily life.
“How can I do this? Even if I were really convinced that God wants me to be a saint, what would I do next?” We cannot let such questions hold us back. Love does not hesitate before obstacles; love finds a way. There are many paths to holiness in the Church, marked out in detail by many great saints and teachers. If we are unsure which we should follow, the Holy Spirit and our guardian angel will show us the way, if we ask them and learn to listen. Those whose vocation is to a hard day’s work in the world, to family and social life, may find helpful the writings of St. Josemaría Escrivá, whom the Holy Father called “the saint of the ordinary.” But the precise path for each one of us is secondary; what is important is the goal and our determination to achieve it, corresponding to God’s call and to his grace.
Let us honor the life of Pope John Paul II by heeding his words, and his death by living as he lived.
The Pope is Dead; Long Live the Pope
Faced with the election of a new pope, a new shepherd of Christ’s flock, we should not mistake the task that the chosen man will face. It is not to fill the shoes of John Paul II; difficult as that will be, it falls short of the reality. Every pope’s challenge is to fill the shoes of Christ, to be, as St. Catherine of Siena put it, the sweet Christ on earth. The world has loved John Paul for who he was as an individual, though of course it was the love of Christ that shone so brightly through him. Catholics, one is permitted to hope, have also loved him because he was the vicar of Christ. And therefore we must be ready to love his successor as much; indeed, if the death of John Paul II really is an occasion for conversion, we may hope to love the next pope even more than we have loved the last.
And what if he is not charismatic? Well, doesn’t a good mother give more affection, not less, to the child who appears less naturally gifted? What matter, even, if the new pope were a great sinner, as some popes in the past have appeared to be? Does a good father love his son because he is good, or because he is his son? If we profess to be Catholics, we must love the pope first and foremost because he is the pope. Regardless of his personality or his merits, he deserves all the affection of our hearts, expressed in our constant prayers for his holiness and his ministry.
In the passing of one pope and the election of another, we have an opportunity to deepen our faith in the Church, and to identify it with the faith of the Church. It is in the Church, our mother, who nourishes us with the sacraments and with the preaching of the Gospel, that we encounter Christ. Indeed, John Paul II was an outstanding witness to this fact, using all his natural and supernatural gifts to direct our eyes to the face of Christ, and to root our hearts in the Church, the Christian community, where we find him. Now is a good time to learn this lesson from the Holy Father, and to help others, whose understanding of the faith may be less than our own, to grasp who he really was. This is especially true if we know young people who have grown to love this man, who perhaps attended one of the World Youth Days, and who have followed his illness and death. We can remind them, as we remind ourselves, that our faith is in Christ, and that the pope, whoever he is, represents Christ.
Christopher V. Mirus holds his Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Notre Dame and teaches Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
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