April 4, 2005, 9:07 a.m.

John Paul the Great

Just very recently, we witnessed the passing of a giant in the 20th century--Pope John Paul II. He was the visible head (the invisible head is Christ) of the Catholic Church, and the spiritual leader of the world, regardless of ideology or ethnicity. As patriarch of the Latin (Western) Rite, he's the head of all Roman Catholics; and as bishop of Rome, the head of the Catholic (Universal) Church. The head does not lord it over the rest of the bishops and patriarchs; instead the head is the first among equals. This is like Peter: all the 12 Apostles are equal, although Peter is the first among them (this is the primacy of Peter; and the late pope was Peter's 263rd successor). For the sake of the non-Catholics, the Catholic Church includes the Eastern Rite churches (several including the Maronite, Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, etc.) and the Western church. Sometimes, terms are confusing especially with all these journalists covering the death of a pope.

Karol Wojtyla, John Paul's baptismal name, was born in Wadowice, Poland in 1920 (I hope the spelling is correct) to a school teacher mother and a soldier father. Because Poland was always under a foreign power, people always longed to be free and independent. These powers were often times ruthless and oppressive, notably fascist Germany and later the Soviet-backed communists. The only one unifying factor is the Church; nationalism was rooted in Christianity. Because or this, their resistance was mainly non-violent. It is in this environment that the future pope lived. He never waivered in faith concerning his country and religion. His calling to the priesthood at this time (as World War II was beginning) was comparable to biblical times--when a crisis is looming, God would raise prophets and saints so as to become his instruments in bringing about needed change. God chose people to do his will, short of actual miracles (as we know the word). Several times Lolek (his nickname) was in mortal danger during the war and later, and for some reason he survived. A lot of his colleagues and friends died at this time. Really, God is raising him for something greater.

From a priest (ordained in 1946), he was later appointed bishop of Krakow, and later becoming Cardinal. He was elected pope in 1978, succeeding the 33-day reign of John Paul I; the first non-Italian in 455 years (first Polish). He didn't change a bit on becoming pope. His championing of human rights ripened into his philosophy of `personalism'--all people had human dignity and are entitled to protection from the moment of concepcion to natural death. All stages of human life are to be protected (see his encyclical Evangelium Vitae). He introduced the phrase culture of life, as opposed the the prevalent culture of death that is mainly brought about by secularism and selfishness. Abortion, euthanasia, contraception, embryonic stem-cell research, artificial fertility technology (in-vitro fertilization, cloning, etc.), and others are unacceptable and grievously wrong or even sinful. Some liberal folks who oppose his pronouncements in this area should first determine why these things are banned. The unborn fetus cannot complain that his basic human right to even exist is trampled upon; the very old, sick and disabled (remember the Schiavo episode; God bless her soul) have no power to prevent some euthanasia advocates (in the guise of providing mercy, or freeing from suffering) from killing them. Since the fertilized ovum or zygote is already human (carrying the 46 chromosomes already), any manipulation of this product of conception is unacceptable, something comparable in the adult or child undergoing bodily mutilation (recall the Nazi human experiments here). What's worse is that some embryos are destroyed or killed as a bi-product of such procedures. Those opposed to the culture of life should think deeper and perhaps read the underlying philosophy or theology of the pope. It's beyond the question or being liberal or conservative.

Obviously the Pope is multifaceted, and writing about him seems to be an unending activity, so perhaps I should stop here. But one aspect that is very much appreciated by all is his persistence in building bridges with one another. In behalf of the church, he has asked the forgiveness for all wrongs committed in the past: against the Jews, Muslims, and several other groups, like women, the Orthodox churches, and others. I just hope that these concerned groups accept the apology and thus start the world anew. In the end, the greatest contribution of John Paul to the entire world is Love. It's unfortunate that he never received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Farewell John Paul II!