In Florida we've seen an already deeply damaged woman waste away amidst anger, contempt, bitterness, and most every other ill trait of human nature. Even now, like insatiable vultures, the opponents battle over a body, a memory, a sympathetic place in our hearts. In Rome we've watched Pope John Paul II finishing what Paul the Apostle called the "race" following Jesus of Nazareth.
In the world of us moderns, death isn't something we're supposed to impose on other people. It is a private matter, to be done discreetly. But lately, in very public ways, we've been forced to look at death. How strangely disquieting for all of us who look in the mirror and see bodies we don't like but believe we can improve-even if it is only through Botox, plastic surgery, or steroids-to see all of the particulars of decay and death play out before us. Part of us screams, "You mean that is going to happen to me?" The true part of us answers quietly, "Yes, one day. Be prepared." But the louder voice inside our heads suggests skipping out to a movie instead, because considering these matters is hard on our self-esteem.
But God seems intent on keeping us uncomfortable. As the images of the vital young priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope flash across the media they are so at odds with the withered man who last appeared on Wednesday straining to be heard but still boldly signing the cross. Over nearly three decades and especially over the past few years, we have seen the pope diminish in physical stature.
For those who have met him, it is difficult. A well-known political leader who had met with him several times in the past few years said to me that it was awkward and uncomfortable to be in the same room as the pope because he was so frail and sick, a shadow of who he had been. It made this robust man squeamish. I don't think he wanted to be reminded that one day that would probably be in a similar condition. After all, John Paul II seemed to bring to the papacy the kind of physical vitality that Teddy Roosevelt brought to the presidency. Why wouldn't that vitality last forever? Isn't there some "Extreme Makeover: Resurrection Edition" we can apply to be part of? No, not on this earth.
In honor of his passing, however, there is something that we can do. We can pay tribute to this man by emulating another of his extraordinary journeys. Two years after Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope, John Paul II went to his prison and sat quietly in a corner with the man whose bullets would have quickly and relatively painlessly taken the pope to heaven without having to endure the indignity of Parkinson's, of slurred speech, of respirators and nutrition being given through a nasal tube. He sat in a corner with the young man and held his hands and whispered quietly into his ear and even laughed with him. To this day, only those men know what words were exchanged. The Pope's visit to the prison was meant to send a broader message of healing and forgiveness to a very troubled world plagued by a Cold War, IRA terrorism, Beirut bombings, and a general sense of intensifying entropy.
Maybe John Paul II held so tightly to life so we could be reminded of that extraordinary moment in his life where he held hands with the man who tried to kill him and presented him with a precious rosary made of oyster shell and silver.
Two families in Florida are ripped apart by competing claims over a wife and daughter, and much of America is ripped apart too. We believe passionately one way or another about her life and her death. Many, including her husband and her birth family, cannot let go of their grievances and fury at one another for the outcome of this woman's sad story.
Let's all go to that prison where one man held another man's hands, kissed him on the cheek, and gave him a gift. Let's go to the prison of anger and bring to it forgiveness. Maybe God is orchestrating this very odd dance at this moment because we are still a world deeply angry and deeply divided and deeply in need of healing. There is no greater tribute that you can pay to a person than to amplify their most important messages of life. So to an America still hurting over Terri, let's forgive each other. Who knows what might happen if we do. For in the Pope's final hours, Mehmet Ali Agca said from his Turkish prison cell that he was praying for the life of his "brother."