I am not a Catholic, but I can identify with those emotions. Here is a man whose life affected not only those who shared his particular faith, but countless other believers seeking to follow Jesus in different ways. I am confident that his witness will live on.
Like many, I marvel at the courageous stand the pope took--not once, but again and again, and on several of the most divisive issues confronting our society. His courage and clarity in defending the sanctity of life at its beginning and its end, his zeal in upholding marriage and the family, his outspokenness on capital punishment, war, and the oppression of the poor in all these areas, he used his authority to appeal to the consciences of those who were willing to listen to him.
The pope's affirmation of Judaism alongside Christianity, and his recognition of Jews as "our elder brothers" (as he put it) deserve special mention, especially given the history of the church in his native Poland. As a boy, one of his closest friends was a Jew, and he was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue. He was also the first to pay his respects at Auschwitz, and to give diplomatic recognition to Israel, something his Vatican predecessors had refused to do.
Like any other institution, the Vatican is not without its blemishes. Its history contains regrettable chapters. My own forebears--the Anabaptist "heretics" of the 16th century--suffered terribly at the hands of Rome. But why hold on to things that happened generations ago? Such bad blood is contrary to what the Gospel teaches about forgiving, loving, and praying for one's enemies.
About 10 years ago, my community, the Bruderhof, attempted to engage in dialogue with the Catholic Church for the first time. It was in great part thanks to the pope's openness to ecumenical exchanges that we were soon given opportunities to foster understanding and even reconciliation. Like Mother Teresa, the pope never failed to acknowledge the various expressions of Christian faith, but he always had a longing for greater unity.
My first personal contact with "Brother John Paul"--I always addressed him this way--took place in October 1995, at the residence of the late Cardinal O'Connor in New York City. My last exchange with him took place at the Vatican in June 2004, during a private audience where he thanked representatives of the Bruderhof for our ongoing commitment to defending the sacredness of all human life.
In recent months the media has focused on the pope's worsening medical condition his frailty, his Parkinsonism, his breathing troubles, and his inability to speak. All the more it is worth remembering the passionate spirit that drove him in earlier years. A brilliant philosopher, a published poet and playwright, and a linguist who could communicate in eight languages, he was also gifted with his hands, and once worked as a stonecutter. He was also a skilled athlete, and skied, kayaked, and swam.
Remarking on the relationship between my community--the Bruderhof--and the Catholic Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote to me (on behalf of the pope) that "the harmony of moral conviction that springs from our common faith in Christ...will arouse hatred, even persecution. The Lord has predicted it. But together with Him we must try to overcome evil with good." That, in a nutshell, describes the life of the John Paul II: He spent his life as a servant to others, trying to overcome evil with good.
One of Jesus' most essential teachings is that of forgiving "seventy times seven," and the pope preached this message tirelessly. He also practiced it, and taught millions by his example. On May 13, 1981, he was surprised by a gunman in St. Peter's Square and was shot twice at near point-blank range. Narrowly surviving, he later visited his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison and personally assured him that he had forgiven him.
This willingness to extend a hand to others marked the pope's public life, too, and took him to a staggering 118 countries during his years in office. And he did more than wave, pray, and bless crowds: he was not afraid to speak his mind on political issues. In 1979, for instance, while visiting Poland, he blessed the underground labor movement Solidarity, giving hope to thousands behind the Iron Curtain. And in 1998, during a visit to Fidel Castro, he denounced the United States' longstanding economic embargo of Cuba.
On one of my recent trips to the Vatican, a joke was going around that the pope had already buried all of his supposed successors. In 1992 he had survived the removal of a tumor from his colon; in 1994, a broken leg and a hip replacement; in 1996, an inflamed appendix. He certainly had a tenacious will to live that surprised everyone, even his closest aides. (Remarkably, his near-assassination was not his only serious brush with death. As a young man in Poland, he was once hit by a streetcar, and another time by a truck.)
His urge to continue serving the faithful, regardless of the odds that were against him, leaves us with a valuable lesson as to how we should all face the end of life. His last weeks in the hospital show us that there is dignity in dying-and that we need not be afraid of death.
The pope has left us with many other lessons to think about, too, and it may take years for us to fully appreciate his significance. For now, however, it might be summed up in these words from Paul's Letter to Timothy--a passage that came to mind immediately when I heard of his passing:
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
If these words are true of anyone, they are true of Brother John Paul. May God give it that they are true of each of us, when our time comes.