If I were to list all of his accomplishments and accolades, it would take all day. Yet, the papacy of Pope John Paul II was significant for me in many ways. First of all, he played a very active role in the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. "Vatican II," as it came to be called, was significant for many reasons, not the least of which it finally allowed mass to be said in the worshippers' native language, as opposed to Latin. For me, however, Vatican II was significant for one of its products, the document known as Nostra Aetate.
In this most important document, it declared:
"The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom."
This strong interfaith message - Nostra Aetate also reached out to Jews - is one I try to embody every day of my life, and I have made a similar call multiple times in my writings. The Pope, however, did more than just talk of ecumenical dialogue, he lived it. Pope John Paul II was the first Pope in history to visit Rome's main synagogue, and when he visited Jerusalem, he placed a prayer in the Western Wall. He was also the first Pope in history to enter mosque, doing so during a trip to Syria in 2001. After the attacks of September 11, he invited world religious leaders to Assisi to pray for peace. The Pope was truly an outstanding man.
Witnessing the events surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II, I cannot help but be reminded of the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). With his passing, our direct connection to the Lord was lost. We no longer are able to enjoy his radiant face, his warm smile, his gentle touch, his soothing kindness, his captivating presence. Even though more than 14 centuries have passed since he died, Muslims the world over still feel the effects of the loss of his death, and there is not a day that goes by during which I do not think of the Prophet (pbuh).
I suspect a great many Catholics feel something similar with the death of Pope John Paul II. Even though I do not believe the Pope was a Prophet, I do believe that the Pope almost always took a stand that was nothing short of prophetic. He was unflinching in his demand for justice for the poor, downtrodden, and less fortunate. He was a powerful force against Communism, and he was instrumental to its eventual collapse in Europe. He always stood for peace and justice, even at the expense of political expediency. Had the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) been alive today, I believe he would have found much in common with the Pope, and I believe they would have stood together on a great many issues.
During the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh), a funeral procession for a Jewish person had passed by where he and his companions were sitting. The Prophet (pbuh) stood up in respect, and when asked why by his companions, he replied, "Was not that a human soul?" Pope John Paul II was not just any human soul; he was a great human being, worthy of praise, admiration, and respect. Therefore, let this column - following the tradition of my beloved Messenger (pbuh) - be my "standing up" for Pope John Paul II as he passes from the life of this world to the next. The world has lost a truly outstanding man.