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The Pope is Young Again!
Vicisti Galilaee!

30 July   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Vicisti Galilaee!

The first and last serious attempt to annihilate Christianity as a world religion possibly began in the year 361 AD when the Roman Emperor Julian endeavoured to restore the pagan cults abolished by his uncle Constantine the Great. But his attempts failed, and Julian died of wounds on the battlefield two years later. Christianity had been the sole official religion of the Empire for less than fifty years, but within that short time it had changed peoples’ expectations of religion. It was no longer possible to pull down the churches and let the garden run wild again! Julian was forced to create a parody of Christianity which even he realised was futile. Europe was still overwhelmingly pagan, but at its very heart paganism was dead, and could only exist as an object of nostalgia. In what was, for all the grandeur of its claims, a small corner of the world, humanity had changed inexorably - and in all likelihood permanently too.

Over the centuries, it is quite true that Christianity has witnessed let alone aided and abetted some ugly moments, violent upheavals and bloodletting episodes. However, those deplorable aberrations had much less to do with the message itself and much more with the messengers themselves. Slowly but surely, the fundamental change of the early century spread to different corners of the world. In fact, history records that Julian’s last words before he died were an acknowledgement of his defeat when he sighed, ‘You have won, Galilean’. Indeed, the young and pastoral Galilean had won the day as he established a major religion claiming well over a billion followers or adherents today.

In one sense, I was reminded of those early clips of Christian history only last week when I watched HH Pope John-Paul II celebrating the World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. This82 -year old man, weakened by Parkinson’s disease and still struggling against an erstwhile fractured femur, had left Rome for the97 th foreign trip of his pontificacy that would take him to Canada, and later to Guatemala and Mexico.

In Canada, I was amazed to watch this man of faith as he galvanised the youth in Canada and helped them emerge from their spiritual torpour. In a couple of days, the organic bond between hundreds of thousands of hitherto insouciant young men and women of the world and this old man had clearly been re-awakened. In his discourses with them, the Pope joked that he still felt young at heart although he no longer counted his years! But he also encouraged his audiences to reject ‘a world of terror and hatred’ and to ‘prefer instead the path of justice and peace’ as defined by Christ. He then reminded me of the future Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams when he added that many young people today were lured by money, success or power, and were influenced by a happiness that traced its source to superficial values and fugacious senses. He exhorted them to believe in God by following His teachings.

But what is it that forges this bond between an old man and those generations of young men and women? Perhaps I can suggest a few traits in Pope John-Paul II that have sadly fallen out of fashion with many religious leaders today:

  • He is not a demagogue, and does not playact a role
  • He sells nothing other than an integrity of the self
  • He is a weak and tired man who is nonetheless bestowed with immense resolve, stamina and charisma
  • He says what he thinks and does not sanitise or colour-rinse his statements in order to suit the occasion
  • He believes in the truth, and shows his respect for others by articulating it even when it displeases them
  • He believes in happiness, and promotes a moral rather than austere brand of Christianity

Moreover, I would suggest that this special fondness between the Pope and the younger generations is also due to the fact that many people do not expect him to live much longer. They want to witness the twilight moments of a Pole who has had a towering influence over Christianity. Mind you, many love him just as quite a few hate him too. Yet, watching him preside over the open-air mass in Toronto on Sunday, it was quite difficult to deny that this man from Poland, born in Wadowice and educated in Krakow, has shaped so many lives and influenced so many believers regardless of how indifferent we may feel toward him or how we interpret his system of beliefs and practices.

In May1085 , Pope Gregory VII lay mortally ill in Salerno. He said, ‘I have loved justice and hated iniquity. Therefore I die in exile.’ His aide replied, ‘How in exile, Holiness, when the whole world is thine?’ This is not the Christianity of the third millennium anymore, but it behoves well for Christians not to lose sight of it far too facilely either!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   30 July


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