by Michael D. O’Brien
Of the myriad phenomenal gifts which God gave (and will continue to give) to the Church and the world through John Paul II, one in particular stands out for me as especially significant for our times. He was a living icon of holy fatherhood. In this great apostle, priest, teacher, and chief shepherd of the flock of the Lord, we experienced an image of Christ’s love, and of God the Father as revealed in Christ Jesus. John Paul II embodied all that was best in human nature, irradiated with grace. An ardent priest, a philosopher, an artist, a sportsman, a man of sacrifice, a man of tender heart and nerves of steel, of wit and laughter and tears, he expressed the essential nature of what it is to be a fully-alive Christian—to be a person in whom Truth and Love are integrated. His qualities seem inexhaustible, his sanctity unquestionable, the legacy of his pontificate so rich that it will be centuries before we absorb it completely, if we ever do. The effects of this extraordinary generosity on the part of Heaven have already begun, yet there is more to come, perhaps centuries more, during which the light he brought to us “from above” will increase and not fade in memory.
A beloved father to us all, his passing into eternity has gripped the entire world as no other pope’s death has done until now. It is a “death in the family,” but in the sense of the family of mankind. We knew that he loved us; he fed us so well and protected us magnificently, yet he always challenged us to grow. He was a sign of contradiction from his earliest years, and during his time in the Chair of Peter he lived out this mystery to completion, moment by moment, day by day, for close to three decades, often with great personal suffering. We grieved when he died, yet this grief was mingled with a mysterious joy—the joy that he was Home at last, and that in Christ he has gone ahead to prepare a place for us.
As we all know, the man who will be the new Holy Father will have “very big shoes to fill.” Yet, in the vast and mysterious plans of the Holy Spirit, it is probable that another great apostle will be given to us, for the times are gravely ill. As St. Paul says, “Where evil abounds, there grace also abounds.” We don’t need to worry about the size of the feet that must fit into the shoes. We must pray earnestly for the man soon to be elected, of course, but there is nothing to fear. It is certain that the new pope will not be big enough for those shoes, for the shoes are always too big for any man to fill, and popes, generally, are the first to know this. John Paul II felt it on the day of his election, and it surely must have been a constant awareness for him. In this awareness, a genuinely apostolic pope opens his heart to Christ still further, so that Christ himself will fill the shoes.
My sense is that our next pontiff will feed the flock of the Lord amidst many tribulations, and that he will do so as popes must always do, by allowing grace to build upon his own unique personality and gifts. He will not be like John Paul in terms of public persona, but he will be very much like him in the order of grace, that is, he will be Petrus, he will be our father in faith, the rock upon which the Church is built. He too will ask us to grow. He too will be a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the world, and to those voices within the Church that advocate a compromise with the world.
There can be no doubt that the configuration of world events have changed for the better in some major aspects under the hand of John Paul II, yet the war between good and evil will last until the end of time. As John Paul warned us so often, we must not assume that because the more brutal forms of Marxism have fallen, mankind will now right itself and a new world order of peace and prosperity will begin. He repeatedly told us that this was not so, and emphasized that the nature of the war had merely changed. He was particularly urgent about our tendency to misread situations by surface appearances. He taught us again and again that Materialism is far from dead and that it threatens in the long run to bring about a far more comprehensive destruction of souls than the destruction brought about under overt totalitarian regimes. This is the situation which the new pope will face.
But he will also inherit a generation of young people who were born and raised in the pontificate of John Paul II. He will inherit a dynamically orthodox Church growing in Africa and Asia. In the underground Church in China, for example, despite the ongoing persecution of Christians in that country, there are probably more true disciples of Christ than in all of Western Europe and North America combined (The Communist Party of China admits that there are between 80 and 100 million underground believers, all of whom at any moment may be forced to pay a terrible price for their beliefs.) He also will inherit a complex reconfiguration of what was once called Christendom. The waning of Christian influence in the governments of the West is a symptom of top-down social revolutions that are abusing democratic procedures to undermine democracy, and doing it in the name of democracy. The list of other geopolitical problems goes on and on. In each and every one of them, ranging from the last vestiges of Stalinism to the new globalist Capitalism (I mean by this a form of capitalism without conscience), the new Holy Father will need extraordinary wisdom and holiness. He will be called to speak the truth fearlessly, prophetically. Indeed, he may be called by God to live out the fullest dimensions of Simeon’s prophecy, not only as a sign of contradiction to those forces and social philosophies in the modern world that would negate the whole truth about Man, but as a sign that will be rejected.
After a period of worldwide mourning (and surprisingly respectful media coverage) the dissemblers have recommenced their efforts to undo what John Paul II began, and to make it more difficult for the next Pope to continue the work of the Petrine charism. In societies where truth has become no more than a negotiable “value,” where good is often called evil and evil called good, those who live and teach truth will continue to suffer much malice from those who do not know what they are really doing. The contempt which some “enlightened” media commentators heaped upon John Paul II during his lifetime, and now upon his memory (more or less mute for a week), is a symptom of hearts grown weary and cold, unable to believe in genuine fatherhood. At root it’s a cry of pain from the fatherless who do not yet know themselves, a sad adolescent reaction, understandable within the context of the culture of death, but its time is nearing an end. The voice of malice will eventually fall silent because it is loveless and sterile. The memory of John Paul II will remain as a vibrant sign of love, fruitfulness, hope. His successor will continue to build the civilization of love, though he may have much to suffer until the culture of death has run its course. Regardless of his apparent victories or defeats, we will stand with him, for where Peter is, there the Church is, and where the Church is, there Jesus is.
Michael D. O’Brien
April 12, 2005