The most fascinating thing about the tributes and the media coverage that have accompanied Pope John Paul II’s death is the relentless message that this particular man’s life will not be forgotten. Many are already calling him a saint. He is dead but his spirit lives in the hearts of the many who admire him.
Such is the function of culture. It tells us that a life can be meaningful even if death necessarily punctuates it. It urges us to embrace life, not as the “one long illness” that Socrates called it as he lay dying, but a chance at immortality. In fact, culture and all its activities – religion in particular — make us forget death, except as a prelude to the eternal life.
“Today I wish to add only this: that each of us must bear in mind the prospect of death. And must be ready to present himself before the Lord and Judge – Who is at the same time Redeemer and Father,” wrote John Paul II in a 1980 addendum to his original last testament. “Accepting that death, even now, I hope that Christ will give me the grace for the final passage, in other words my Easter. I also hope that He makes that death useful for this more important cause that I seek to serve: the salvation of men and women, the safeguarding of the human family and, in that, of all nations and all peoples (among them, I particularly address my earthly Homeland), and useful for the people with whom He particularly entrusted me, for the question of the Church, for the glory of God Himself.”
From the start, it was clear to John Paul II that he wished most of all to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War and the liberation of nations from tyranny. At the same time, he was also conscious of his duty to strengthen the institution that was entrusted to him, and to ensure its survival and relevance in the third millennium.
In all these intentions he undoubtedly succeeded. Dictatorships fell not only in his beloved Poland but almost everywhere he brought the message of freedom and human rights, including the Philippines. The end of the Cold War in the late ‘80s, which signaled the collapse of the Soviet Union, owes much to his efforts. What he may not have foreseen are the dangers of a unipolar world, a world dominated by one military and economic superpower that will not hesitate to trample on other peoples’ rights in the pursuit of its interests. He was horrified by the American aggression in Iraq and used his moral authority to oppose the war. But he himself commanded no armies; he was powerless to stop the madness of US President George W. Bush.
He spoke for poor nations buried in debt as a result of exploitation and bad government, and endorsed selective debt cancellation as a moral option. The rich nations applauded him but completely ignored his message.
He spoke for the poor, the youth, the sick, and migrants all over the world, and championed the cause of the family as an institution. But he was unyielding on Church doctrines pertaining to the rights of women and gays, the issues of contraception and divorce. In trying to seek a balance between the Church’s need to remain relevant in a changing world and preserving the institution’s moral authority, he leaned on the side of conservatism.
The Church remains in crisis still, but if it is stronger than it was in 1978 when John Paul II became its head, it can only be due in great measure to the fact that he managed to reach out to almost every sector of the human family. Although he performed his duties faithfully as leader of the institutional Church, he was a priest to the end. He was effective because, more than any world leader of his time, he mastered the idiom of the modern media, consistently synthesizing his messages into powerful sound bites.
John Paul II is probably even more eloquent in death than in life. His final words, including his last testament, echo the lessons he sought to teach when he was alive. His death illumines his life. Young people remember him most because he gave them joy. He taught them not to fear.
The whole past week, television covered the Pope’s death by following a simple formula – to make others talk about the man who has just died, their rare encounter with his presence, his impact on their lives. This is the way to immortality in the age of mass media. A few years from now, few will likely remember where this pope precisely stood on the crucial questions of our time. It is the television persona that prevails.
John Cornwell captured this persona so accurately in his book, “The Pontiff in winter”: “There is no substitute for the living presence, the inclination of the head, the meeting of the eyes, the idiosyncratic gesture, the tone of voice.” No other pope was quite like him. I never had the chance to meet John Paul II in person or to see him up close, but I can relate to this image of the man who, “deeply stooped and hugely broad-shouldered, his legs a little apart like a hill-walker steadying himself,” seemed to carry all the burdens of the world.
The mass media routinely confers upon celebrities instant immortality. The more tragic and unexpected their death, the bigger they look. The cases of Princess Diana and of Fernando Poe Jr. quickly come to mind. But such media-based immortality seldom endures. A few hours after Pope John Paul II was buried, television’s attention quickly shifted to the next celebrity happening: the marriage of the late Diana’s former husband, Prince Charles, to his lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Neither television nor canonization can make John Paul II immortal. But a concrete change for the better in the life of the human family may.
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