“Compassion without condescension. Pity with no retreat to vulgarity. Sympathy for the common without submission to the privileged. A path not only good, but great.”
~ Eulogy for Jane Addams
Half the world’s population has known no other Pope. Yet the story that pierces the heart is a personal one of two deaths, days apart and worlds away. In Rome, the gentle passing of the consummate servant of compassion. In Florida, the anguished torture of a suffering victim of contempt.
Aspects of mankind in full relief in the twinkling of an eye. John Paul II’s compassion was not a sloppy sentimentalism for the underprivileged and unempowered. It was the absolutely practical belief that, regardless of one’s background or ability, every human life, however compromised, was worthy of all opportunities society had to offer.
Terri Schiavo fell victim to the false pity that marries so well with contempt. One is reminded of the words of Margaret of Navarre in “Mirror of the Sinful Soul” that “A parent will never forget a child, but what spouse will ever forgive their partner?” The spirit of sacrifice so prevalent in the life of Karol Wojtyla was found so wanting in the heart of Michael Schiavo.
The causes of conscience and character are desperate ones. There are great enemies of these causes. Enemies who fear that they will lift the human condition beyond the mediocre and out of the reach of the mundane. But these causes are only desperate if there are no exertions expended to defend them.
The legacy and teaching of this Pope is that above all the demands of religious particularities, the great exertions must be in the defence of human universalities. Of faith not only in God but just as importantly in Man. In John Paul the words “Ecce Homo”, behold the man, took on new meaning as he waited for no pilgrimages to Rome, but became Pastor to the world by manifesting his Ministry on the ground visiting an unsurpassed 140 lands. He wanted to touch people and have the people be touched by him.
His lesson was that inaction – languor, lethargy – is the crucible of despair. That we are responsible one for the other, but that responsibility is not a philosophical notion but a physical obligation. And that no amount of suffering releases one from that obligation for the Pope’s own life was a service of witness to the pain of mankind’s descent into hell.
He was never downcast by the thickets of life’s reverses. He met all challenges with vigour no matter how swiftly or suddenly they appeared. Through the death of his mother at age 8, to the death of his brother at 12, then that of his father. The war years where his study and rescue put his life at risk. The numerous physical traumas he overcame even before the assassination attempt. He was a living testament to Camus’ injunction that to be heroic you must be first be a man. What we take from his living testament is to remain undaunted by life’s dark abyss for the triumph rests in spending ourselves in a worthy cause with noble purpose.
Despite the trappings of the Church, he taught us never to yield to force of numbers, or the lure of lucre or the seduction of power for its own sake. But to stand for the right and overcome dismay. For he knew that though the day was short and the agenda long, the work must continue; our strength would endure; and the dream could never be allowed to die.
He devoutly cherished the prospects of freedom and peace. He would not allow them to be benighted. Our challenge is to follow the standard of engagement he raised. Never to acquiesce to those who sought, even in his own reign, to narrow his mission and message to simple parable and platitude. Against him, as we see in the temporal world in which we live, stood those who used many pious excuses for inaction. Had he listened, half of Europe could have remained enslaved.
He succeeded because he viscerally understood mankind’s transcendent yearning for redemptive change. He lived the words of I John 3:17 that “Whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
It is to be hoped that his successors carry forth not just the flame of his words but the fire of his deeds. Marching as to war not only to the dirges of parochial observance but to the drumbeats of humanistic faith. I think he would have wanted it that way.