Editorial: Pope John Paul II

A clear-eyed assessment of the legacy of Pope John Paul II will provide plenty of fodder for future scholars. In the meantime, the world mourns the passing of a great man.

The death of the pontiff on Saturday concluded one of history's most influential and beloved papacies.

With the news of the pope's death, St. James Cathedral draped its western portal in black and white and purple bunting; the cathedral bells tolled 84 times to mark the years of the man who had been pope since 1978.

And the world media, long prepared, sprang into action. Much of the memorializing has focused on John Paul's more obvious sources of appeal - his linguistic agility, his more than 100 international journeys, his reaching out to other faiths and his role in the fall of communist Poland.

Beneath John Paul's gift for globe trotting theater, his stand on issues of substance made him a paradoxical figure. His opposition to birth control and abortion, ordination of women and gay issues pleased conservatives. His concern for the poor and the marginalized and his opposition to both wars in Iraq appealed to liberals. He called war "a defeat for humanity."

What strikes us about John Paul II is the spiritual greatness of a human being who had looked into the abyss and spoke, and acted, accordingly. He was not out to please a select constituency.

Poland in the 20th century - "The Terrible 20th," as Churchill put it - was the crucible for world tragedy. The Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 triggered a conflict which ended with that benighted country falling under the heel of yet another kind of totalitarianism.

As Karol Josef Wojtyla, born in Krakow in 1920, the future pope experienced first hand the ideological horrors that haunted the European continent.

And yet, as pope, he didn't let the western democracies off the hook. This is where much of his greatness lies.

"There are many human needs which find no place in the market," he said of Western capitalism.

A truly holy man like Pope John Paul II represents, like the cross he worshipped, the intersection of time and eternity. John Paul reminded Western society, especially the young, that we have a spiritual destiny beyond the marketplace, opinion polls, official lies, the round-the-clock media drumbeat and the awful avalanche of consumer complacency.

John Paul saw what drives destructive behavior and beliefs, no matter what the "ism," and spoke to it. "Be not afraid," he told us.

We shall not see his likes again. Something very precious has passed through the world.

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