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Echo of a Silver Jubilee!
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam! - The Vatican, 16 October 1978

21 October   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

On Monday, 16 October1978 , white smoke billowed from the Vatican chimney announcing that Cardinal Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, had become the264 th Pope of the Universal Catholic Church. Only 58 years old, John-Paul II was also the first Polish Pope ever, and the first non-Italian since the election of Adrian VI in1522 .

Today, as Christians across the world celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the ‘Polish Pope’, 1978 seems such a long time ago! The man is no longer young, and he is certainly not young-looking either! Yet, he is indisputably one of the most remarkable Popes that the Catholic Church has ever elected for a long time. Lucid, witty, charismatic, humorous and media-friendly, he is also a redoubtable theologian and deep-rooted philosopher. Much influenced in his early years by the teachings of Saints Louis Marie Montfort and John of the Cross, he has authored Love and Responsibility, contributed to Humanae Vitae and issued many Encyclicals. I suspect that ‘personalism’ would best describe the character of his writings - a philosophical tendency to investigate reality from the viewpoint of the human person.

A devotee of Mary, Mother of God, John-Paul II was also a first-hand witness of both Nazism and communism. Whether in his utter devotion to Mary, in his constant attempts to initiate dialogue with Judaism, the older sister of Christianity, or in his contribution toward the demise of communism in his native Poland, his past experiences have always shone through. And today, the current successor to Peter is viewed as someone who has managed to vitalise the Catholic Church despite his seeming penchant for austere traditionalism and his ostensible aptitude for centralisation.

I was fortunate enough to meet the Holy Father for the first time some thirteen years ago, and have since then had a number of audiences with him let alone accompanied him on his pilgrimages to Armenia, Greece, Ukraine and most extensively the Holy Land (of Jordan, Israel and Palestine). And although I had heard many people speak about the aura of holiness this man exudes, it was only when I met him that I realised at long last its deep-seated and all-enveloping impact! I remember seeing him once, and began almost unthinkingly to remind him of my apostrophic identity in life! He looked at me, and with an amused twinkle in his eye (a luminescent twinkle of faith that reminded me of another great religious leader, Armenian Catholicos Karekin I, who died from cancer in1999 ), he said, ‘Ah, but it is the Armenian from Jerusalem’!

In a nutshell, though, who is Pope John-Paul II? Ecumenist? Politician? Philosopher? Reformist or traditionalist? Celebrity? Architect of a newer but much more just world order? Propagator of saints? Anti or pro? Perhaps one of the most suitable reflections on the life and witness of this Bishop of Rome, after 25 exhausting years of his pontificate, can be found in the words of the hymn We have a Gospel to proclaim (Fulda1815 ). Indeed, I believe that his steely determination to proclaim the Gospel to all four corners of the world epitomises the true ministry of the Holy Father. It overrides all other abundant traits, both positive and negative, that have accompanied him ever since 1978 and that have remained the steady companions of his pontificate. Wherever he travelled, his ultimate objective has been to preach the Word of God to believers and non-believers alike. The channels he has established with the Orthodox Churches from Constantinople to Athens to Romania to Armenia, as well as with Judaism and Islam, are patent. Then, the following he has won from scores of young Catholic men and women in quest of integrity and consistent values has made him a primary disciple of faith. Despite his abiding disappointment at not visiting Russia (due in part to the churlish fears of the Russian Orthodox Church), his travels have echoed the zeal of his mission. And in that sense, he has manifested the instinct of St Paul for preaching the Gospel. In fact, one mission statement I recall that best describes him can be found at the Dominican Chapel on the Marywood Campus, ‘We who gather to worship {here} remember Jesus' dying and rising, listen to and proclaim God's word, celebrate God's saving love in our daily living. Nourished and transformed, we go forth to serve and be served.’

In1935 , a French visitor is reputed to have asked the Soviet communist leader Josef Stalin whether he thought Pope Pius XI might prove to be an ally. The Soviet leader retorted, ‘How many divisions can the pope supply us?’ When the Pope heard of the story many years later, he replied, ‘Tell my son Josef that he will meet my divisions in eternity!’ Indeed, as the present Pope gets ready to meet his Maker, the [un]holy scramble amongst the College of Cardinals for his papabili successor has started already. Who knows, when the day comes, the Nigerian-born Cardinal Arinze might well become the new Pope and lay the claim as the first black Pope since St Gelasius I in492 .

Let me sum up my impressions with the words of Gabriel Fauré’s antiphon, sung at first Vespers on the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul. Indeed, as I look at John-Paul II today, and accept his fortes and foibles, I add with faith, Tu es Petrus!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   21 October


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