On April 2, at 9:37 p.m. Pope John Paul II died. In his room, beginning at 8 p.m., Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz had just celebrated the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday and administered a final anointing. Since his death, thousands have expressed tributes. I would like to mention two which give some indication of his greatness.
The Rev. Billy Graham said that Pope John Paul “was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years.” That is true. I cannot think of anyone who would give close competition – yet he did no more than articulate traditional Catholic teaching. Continuing the theme of moral leadership, President Bush said that the pope “reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak.”
Pope John Paul II set many records. Part of the reason is that his papacy was the third longest among the 264 Roman Pontiffs. He governed the Church for 26 years and 5 months. Blessed Pius IX reigned longer – 31 years and 7 months. The only other pope who had a longer reign was the first one. In 30 A.D. Jesus told Simon, son of John, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” He gave him keys to open and close, bind and loose. Simonn Peter took them first to Antioch and then to Rome where died in 64 A.D., during the Nero’s persecution.
Like the first bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul guided the Church fearlessly. The final words he addressed to the faithful were, “I am happy and you should be happy too. Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy.” He knew that, as St. Francis had said, death is our sister.* When she comes, we must embrace her. After consulting with the doctors, he chose not to go the hospital where he could have received more intensive care.
Something very different happened in our country a few days earlier. On Thursday morning (March 31) a young woman in Florida died of hunger and thirst. Unlike the pope, she suffered no illness; she was not dying. They took food and water from her and she died of thirst and starvation.
The Holy Father had accepted a nasal feeding tube. He had pointed out something we have always known: food and water are not extraordinary means. They are very ordinary, even if administered through a feeding tube. In the case of Terri Schiavo, they did not even attempt to give her water with a spoon. Several people were arrested, including two adolescents, who tried to bring her a glass of water.
During his pontificate, the pope has tried to alert the world to a growing darkness. He referred to it as the culture of death. Like the ideologies of Nazism and Communism which he fought, the culture of death devalues the human person. It considers some worthy of life and others inconvenient, disposable. This culture has condemned about one of every three children to death by abortion. In the United States it has allowed the conception of 400,000 humans outside the mother’s womb, frozen them and then consigned them to the garbage or to dismemberment by scientific experiments. In some states and countries, the culture of death has legalized doctor assisted suicide. Two days before the pope’s death, it reached a new low as we watched our representatives and president powerless to stop the murder of Terri Schiavo.
Many people ask how we will ever emerge from this heinous culture of death. It will not be easy. We are in for a long struggle. To find the way back to sanity, we need to do what the pope did: prayer, sacrifice and constant meditation on Jesus teaching. The Gospels show the way back to sanity. This is particularly true during the Easter Season.
Have you noticed during this time how much emphasis our Scripture readings place on the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection? That is a good starting point for our meditation. Jesus breathes on his apostles, shows them his wounded hands and side, fries some fish for them – and even eats in front of them. This Sunday we see Jesus walking beside the two disciples, speaking with them and finally breaking bread before disappearing.
Jesus physical, flesh and blood, human nature has great importance for us today. It used to be that our primary adversaries were materialists, those who deny spiritual reality. They are still there, but it seems like the ones in the forefront are not so much those who deny the spirit, but those who virtually deny the body. They claim a spirituality which makes them believe they can do anything they want with their bodies – or other peoples. This “new Manichaeism” is at the heart of the sexual revolution. If it feels good, do it. And this corollary: if your body no longer gives you good sensations, trash it. That was the approach of the man who engineered Terri Schiavo’s death. In his book Litigation as Spiritual Practice, George Felos lays out his philosophy. One paragraph is particularly revealing:
“As Mrs. Browning lay motionless before my gaze, I suddenly heard a loud, deep moan, a scream, and wondered if the nursing home personnel heard it and would respond to the unfortunate resident. In the next moment, as this cry of pain and torment continued, I realized it was Mrs. Browning. I felt the mid-section of my body open and noticed a strange quality to the light in the room. I sensed her soul in agony. As she screamed I heard her say, in confusion, ‘Why am I still here … why am I here?’ My soul touched hers and in some way, I communicated that she was still locked in her body. I promised I would do everything in my power to gain the release her soul cried for. With that the screaming immediately stopped. I felt like I was back in my head again, the room resumed its normal appearance, and Mrs. Browning, as she had throughout this experience, lay silent. I knew without a doubt what had transpired was real...”
In this bizarre (and chilling) paragraph you can see two Gnostic characteristics: a pretense of secret knowledge (gnosis) hidden from ordinary people and a radical soul/body split. And they have great confidence in the nobility of their own soul. For Felos the “soul” is everything; the body is a kind of prison. This approach is sinister because it appeals to people who have spiritual aspirations – while it causes no discomfort to those with a completely materialistic attitude. In fact, it is suspiciously convenient. People might piously talk about how Mrs. Browning or Terri Schiavo has been set free, is now in a better place, her suffering over, etc. It may well be true, but those who say such things need to be honest about their own motivation.**
Pope John Paul devoted much of his energy to combating this new Manichaeism. Perhaps his greatest theological contribution is the Theology of the Body. He developed it in a series of audiences he gave during the first years of his papacy. It is not easy reading, but it has turned around many people’s lives. I know college students who attended courses on the pope’s theology of the body and who realized they had to make a radical change in how they were using their bodies – and other people.*** Previously they had viewed their behavior as little bit of dust which they could quickly wash away. Now they realized it was more like a penetrating ink which stains deeply - and indelibly.
In his Easter homily St. Peter said that Jesus was not “abandoned to the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption.” Our Lord’s flesh, his physical body continues. Meditating on the physicality of the Risen Lord should lead us to deep reverence for the human body – ones own and those of others.
*But not control her. If you have a sister, you will understand the distinction. See Sister Death.
**A skeptic might retort that someone else was set free. I will leave satire to others, but certain situations beg for it.
***The two funerals - of Terri and of the pope - dramatically illustrate the different approaches to the human body. In one case the body was cremated and hastily disposed of, with no public marker. In the other, a body treated with reverence before being consigned to the earth, with a site where loved ones can focus memories and prayers.
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies
Podcasts of homilies (website of my niece, Sara)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies: great listening - I particularly enjoyed his series on the seven sacraments
Bulletin (Personal memory of Pope, the heart of his message)
Prayer Service for our least brothers and sisters
George Weigel on Pope John Paul's Greatest Achievements
Homily on Pope John Paul II and Terri Schiavo by Fr. James Farfaglia
John Paul the Great by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (New York Post article)
The Last Anti-modern Pope (well worth reading)
Bishop Skylstad: Pope John Paul took as an informal motto of his papacy the words of scripture, “Be not afraid!”
my bulletin column
Parish Picture Album
Boston Globe Cover-Up?
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru