The passing of Pope John Paul II has touched us all. The feeling of grief and sadness was not limited to the people in his church but extended far beyond the contemporary Christian world. It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a circle around him and encompass all that he did during his pontificate. Like millions of others, I felt a special bond with him even though I profess to a different faith. It was his wonderful ability to reach out across religious and ethnic divides that gave us all the feeling of belonging to the common family of man.
He was in a real sense of the word a global citizen who while defending his faith in the most literal and orthodox way found ways to expound on the common threads of spirituality between different faiths. In the eyes of some of his followers he went too far in accepting other religious traditions as noble and worthy of respect. But to many of us it enhanced his stature as a religious leader. It takes an extraordinary man to understand the currents of history and use his stature and moral authority to help heal the fissures that have divided the people of faith on this earth.
Many of us carry the heavy and burdensome baggage from the history of our remote past. I grew up reading the stories of Richard the Lion heart and Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin in western vernacular). The Crusades started by Pope Urban II in 1096 went on for more than a century and devastated a few generations of believers on both sides of the divide. Pope John Paul II understood the folly of those wars and nine centuries later apologized for them. Not many people possess such moral clarity and also the courage to enunciate it in simple words. He showed the same clarity when he apologized to the Jews for his Church's anti-Semitism of the past.
His visit in 2001 to the ancient Omayyad mosque in Damascus was another first for a pope. He visited the tomb of John the Baptist (Prophet Yahyia to Muslims) and prayed there with Muslims. In his brief remarks he emphasized that Catholics and Muslims continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others' religious beliefs. He went on to say that better mutual understanding would lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting "our two religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family."
In the same spirit he reached out to Judaism and prayed in a synagogue in Rome and, during his visit to the Holy Land, at the Wailing Wall. And he found compassion in his heart to forgive the Turkish man who had tried to kill him.
Pope John Paul's role in the liberation of Poland is well recognized. He used his moral authority and his enormous popularity to encourage nonviolent opposition to communist rule in his country of birth.
He also had his detractors. They point to his strict adherence to orthodoxy and sidestepping important issues of priest celibacy, ordination of women, homosexuality, and absolute rejection of contraceptives for the prevention of AIDS. His refusal to be swept away by the gathering winds of change is not a negative mark on his papacy.
The influence of great men is not measured in the large armies they command or the vastness of the realms they rule; it is how they shape the world and touch the common man. In his 28-years on the Papal throne this humble man from Wadowice, Poland, has left a rich legacy of humility, understanding, nobility, and grace. We are grateful.