Portrait of a Hagiography

Karol died on Saturday night at 20.37 Real Time. I have been seriously worried about him for over a month now. I am sure practicing Catholics have been praying for his health and his passing much longer than me and I am sure they have been even harder hit by it than me.

I am amazed by the outpouring of grief and praise that has been bestowed upon him by the Irish media. You know something is up when Eamonn Dunphy (classic quote on Dunphy in that link- the blogger respects him “less than people who make bestiality movies”) claims that he still feels strong pulls towards Catholicism to Fintan O’Toole. The media, as I cited back on February 26th have not really been very nice to JPII. But in true modern fashion, he dies and becomes, well, a Saint.

That is one thing he certainly is, in the strict theological sense of the term. A saint is anyone who manages to run the race of Christianity over the course of their life. Karol certainly managed that. God put him in a context that made his impact so extraordinary and that, pleasantly, will leave us remembering him as John Paul the Great. Yet I have no doubt that were he to have died an obscure parish priest in southern Poland with more than a passing interest in languages, then God would receive him no less gladly upon his death. (Christianity 101 Lesson 1: You do not earn your salvation, you receive it as a free gift through faith and its blossoming in the form of obedience- JPII is heaven-bound due to his titannic faith and his willingness to obey God, not because he also happened to be a generous, funny and deeply good man).

I don’t want to waste this chance by waffling on about Karol’s worldly achievements. There will be many journalists and reporters and historians dissecting his role in the downfall of Communism and lots of people will assess his prodigious gifts. Maybe Irish blogland’s philosopher-in-hiding, Neuro will tell us about his dramatic and moral philosophical works.

I just want to touch on two things that make me deeply thankful for Karol’s life and that make him (not without points of disagreement) a role-model for my life.

Zoomtard’s struggles -v- JPII’s struggles
The first aspect to his life is something that has come into focus for me in the last six months since I began work as a “Christian minister”. My job is at the very bottom of Christendom. Seriously, if I went crazy and started preaching heresies that would sicken you, I couldn’t really do much damage. At most, my life’s work at this point reaches a population of about 2,000 people who are all demographically identical. And yet, this little pastoral role of mine could drive me crazy.

Although I never have to marry anyone or comfort grieving family members, I often come home from a day burdened by the things that I have heard or by the brokeness that I have seen and it is really common for me to despair. The famous lines from Eleanor Rigby echo in my ears constantly.

Worse than this dread at the predicaments others are in is the dread at my own position. I claim to teach the truth revealed by the Creator of the Universe. I go out into tutorial rooms and tell people that the force that threw the Cosmos together (in the dark!) actually cares about their failings and wants to liberate them. In all seriousness:

Who the fuck do I think I am?

Driving home from a university one night I spent the time rolling the same questions over and over in my head. Why am I doing this? Why did they let me do this? Did God really call me into this? Does God really exist? Does He really care for us? Is He who I tell people He is? What if they knew about the real me? How can I be so arrogant?…

And on it goes. The role of the Christian leader is one that is so tightly bound to low self-esteem that I don’t think they can really ever be completely seperated because the equation doesn’t match up. Tiny, broken, selfish and sinful people like me should not be involved in spreading the Good News of freedom.

Since starting in this role, I have been gifted with two formal mentors, older men in different kinds of roles in Christianity. I meet with them seperately regularly and I can confide in them and rant at them and splurge all that crap that everyone has inside them but that gets heightened when you are in a position like mine. Without the wise and caring advice and encouragement of these two friends, I would be screwed.

But more than them, my wife has been central in me keeping my wits about me when my wits want to pack up shop, emigrate to Cuba and detox with 5 months of intense hedonism to get all this “listening” and “caring” out of my system. Even if I feel like an imposter or a failure at the end of a very hard day, I go to bed with the coolest, funniest, cleverest woman I’ve ever met and even if she can’t tell me everything is going to be alright, she can at least tell me she is going to be there.

Karol never had that. And since starting this job I have been at a loss to understand how much faith he must have had and how dedicated he must have been as a parish priest in Poland under an oppressive Soviet regime to just stick with it and keep battling the crazy fight of Christianity without giving up. How much more so must he have been prone to esteem issues when he was no longer simply responsible to God for the teaching of His Word to a small flock in Krackow but to the whole world as the Bishop of Rome?

Who was his mentor? One of mine is a successful businessman, well travelled, who now works for an international charity. The other is a polymathic church leader who has flown combat jets and written famous doctorate theses. They are much more impressive than me. They have more important jobs and kids and mortgagtes and responsibilities I don’t even want. They have experience that far out-strips mine and so they are ideal mentors.

Who can serve that role for the Pope? My mentors sometimes have to listen to my secret tribulations in my little job. The Pope’s mentor would have to listen to him struggle through what might be (a big might, I’ll grant you), the key to the end of the world.

The strength of faith and the discipline of obedience to keep getting up in the morning and not go crazy in the midst of that is something I have admired, learned from and will return to in the decades I hope are before me in my life.

Shone Like A Star In the Sky
We have already touched on my arrogance in that previous section but imagine this: as a final year computer science student, I had the cojones to address a whole university with a Primer on Christian Bioethics. It was while preparing for this talk that I was first struck by the authenticity with which JPII backed up his philosophies.

In his early days, long before pontificates and such glories, as a philosophy lecturer, Karol developed a concept in his work that has come to be known (and used by Dubya amongst others) as the Culture of Life. Karol felt that all life was sacred. Living to him was a gift from God.

All theologians come back to one question- “Why existence?” Why is there life at all? Science is increasingly explaining how but it can’t say why. In the face of this question and the answer found in Christianity, Karol built a philosophy on the idea that independent of your situation or your setting, the mere fact of your life was a miracle to be celebrated.

This was the source of his justice-obbsessed lifetime and his battle against the CCCP. It was also the source, I feel, of the great passion for life that he demonstrated before his decline. Long before John Piper developed his philosophy, Karol was living as a Christian Hedonist.

This Culture of Life also sourced the opinions that were objected to most heavily by the media and the western democracies- his staunch opposition to war, his almost total abhorrence of the death penalty, his total abhorrence of abortion and later, of embryonic stem cell research.

While I was researching my talk on bioethics I read about Michael J. Fox, who was a hero to me as a kid because of the excellent Back to the Future series. Fox suffered from Parkinsons like the Pope and backed the farming of embryos to utilise their stem cells as a source for treatments to fatal and to life-destroying illnesses.

JPII oppossed it. In every case. He was happy for people to use adult stem cells taken from our bone marrow but he would have feared that by trying to save people from AIDS and Parkinsons, we would be committing a genocide on people unable to protect themselves because they were still embryos.

I have no doubt that most of my readers will recoil at those words and they would not be the terms I would use but I would not be surprised if Karol would use them. As a man who lived through genocide, he can’t be accused of not understanding the depth of the crimes involved and he certainly felt that there were comparisons between Holocaust and the way we treat the unborn in the West today.

But even if you disagree with him, still and passionately, you cannot accuse him of hypocrisy. Karol was authentic. He took a position that needed courage in the first place but then he was willing to go through with living out that position- even living it out in death.

People who said that his dying days were beyond human dignity have too narrow a view of humanity to understand what Karol stood for. If God loves each of us unconditionally, then He values us regardless of what we have to offer Him (it is logically insensible to think about being able to offer Him anything), and regardless of what we have to offer others. As such, God loves and cares for and values even a 3 cell long embryo and an adult with severe autism and an old Polish man withered by the depletion of myelin. Karol lived on publicly, literally in the tremors of death because it was a chance for him to live out the Culture of Life. His pain, his regret, his sorrows and his doubt meant nothing compared to the two facts that shaped his life and should shape the life of every Christian who is concerned with living (and then dying) well:
1) I am alive.
2) God loves me.
The anguish of the human condition slips into nothingness when set beside the fact that life still burns and that God still loves.

Understanding this gives you a key into understanding so many of John Paul the Great’s teachings that were controversial. I disagree passionately with many of his positions but that is to be expected- Presbyterians and Catholics can’t be uniform together. But I respected this man so deeply because of the authenticity with which he ran his race of faith.

In his first letter, the first Pope, Peter wrote:

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:13-15)

Francis of Assisi taught his students to go out into the world and preach the Gospel and if neccessary, use words. In his dying, Karol stands as an authentic witness to the fact that God still lives in the secular Western democracies, that God is still available to each of us and that God is still eager to share his strength and comfort in even our most trying moments. JPII lived out those words written by the first Pope 1,960 years ago and has re-ignited in me a passion to do the same. It was not by his might that he achieved what he did but through faith that Paul was right when he wrote to the church at Philipi.

John Paul II is dead and that is a sad thing. What is sadder still is that I didn’t get to see CaoimheB on the tv today because of it!

8 Responses to “Portrait of a Hagiography”

  1. teragram says:

    That post was strangely reminiscent of Angela Lansbury.

  2. adrian says:

    Heresy? Isn’t the Bible all just open to interpretation? Kinda like the newly relocated bltc:
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/anemia_red/

    Oh, special shout out to JPII. I’m just glad he’s up there at God’s right hand, with Easy E, Tupac, Biggie Smalls and the late ’70s version Michael Jackson.

  3. Zoompope says:

    A: The Bible is just open to interpretation?

    Z: Yes it surely is.

    A: Does that mean there is no right interpretation?

    Z: Shut up it doesn’t! Why, that makes no sense. But to get to the right answer we have to be willing to consider every answer. Put it another way, the purpose of attempting to interpret it at all is to find out the right interpretation.

    I sometimes wonder if you are taking the piss Adrian. I would love a clue because then your joke might actually become funny as oppossed to confusing.

  4. Stig says:

    Fellow Zoomlovers- and Adrian,
    am I the only one who was affected and challenged by this milestone post:

    -Zoomy speaks explicitly about his wife (not in a sexual way)
    -Zoompope confesses (like never before) his shortcomings and doubts in relation to his job- and his whole life in fact, as a Christian
    -Zoomzoom reveals his job
    -Zoomito uses a Spanish word

    One of my favourite posts to date.

  5. adrian says:

    What scares me about the Bible is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways, and has been for centuries by so many. Often when Christians do evil-type stuff they will cite passages of the Bible as justification. It’s fair enough to claim that these interpretations are ill-informed, or that the passages are taken out of context, but ultimately it boils down to your interpretation of the Bible vs. theirs.

    Of course, as you may have guessed, I’m only ever partially serious. This is because the world is to depressing a place to be serious for any period of time.

  6. Zoompope says:

    Adrian,

    I am not messing here when I propose this:
    Go read some of the Pope’s pre-Pope writing. If you seriously think that the world is so depressing, then maybe a good dose of Karol’s ideas on how to make life better might do you the power of good. 😉

    Stig, my motivation is your approval. Seriously.

    Stig means grandad in Swedish.

  7. stig says:

    I hate to disappoint you, SuperZoom, but it actually means ‘footpath’.

    It is, however, a very common name in Sweden with (to quote one of my favourite Swedes) “old people and nerds”.

    I have a dissertation that, no matter how much time i fritter away, doesn’t seem to want to do itself. I would like to know how to make life better. Could you give me a link to some of Karol’s afore-mentioned writing?

  8. Zoompope says:

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/

    The first and third ones are my favourites. The first is on Christ as central redeemer and it was published less than 6 months after his Papacy began.

    The 3rd one is about work. It is widely regarded as the premier piece on the topic, well, ever.

    Enjoy.