I have few comments on the death of the late Bishop of Rome and Patriarch of the West, John Paul II. By sheer chance of channel-surfing, I came across his funeral live on C-Span and watched some and slept through much. I was impressed with the simplicity and dignity of the service. Though the workmanship was exquisite, the plain cypress coffin (with an inlay of the pontiff’s armorial symbols, a cross and an M plus beautiful dovetailing) was an elegant and eloquent witness against the excesses of the funeral industry. People strapped for cash lay out thousands of dollars for metal and satin contraptions that, however much we love the deceased, simply holds a corpse until time does its work. Simplicity, function, beauty—these alone suffice.
The banner at the doors of St Peter’s was also elegant—appropriate in its proportions, proclaiming the Resurrection without words through the reproduction of a painting of the risen Christ, framed in crimson hangings to match the papal vestments and the chasubles of the cardinals.
Splendid music. And how lovely the sound of a woman reading the lesson from Acts in Spanish!
Only later did I read that when Dubya appeared on the giant TV screens there arose booing and whistling among the crowd outside St Peter’s Squara. What a grand Italian tradition—one might think one were at La Scala catching a substandard performance. I certainly found it jarring to see him and have to acknowledge my visceral distaste for all he represents. [No, I do not mean America and her ideals which I hold quite separate for anything related to the current administration other than its holding office.] Even more jarring was the sight of Condi Rice after the service, smiling and greeting others. That the US Secretary of State should attend when former President Jimmy Carter wished to be there is simply appalling. I would think a Nobel Peace Prize winner would be more appropriate than one of the architects of our invasion of Iraq. Ah well, seeing Their Most Catholic Majesties Juan Carlos and Sofia in the front row of dignitaries took the edge off my political distaste.
So, the legacy of John Paul II? Mixed. He did reach out to make the church more global; mended some fences with Muslims, Jews, and the Orthodox; spoke out against war as a solution to our problems and against the death penalty; and greatly strengthened the spirit of those resisting communism (while maintaining a clear critique of capitalism’s evils). He spoke on behalf of the poor. Within his value system he was consistent. The articles following his death reminded me of his positive accomplishments.
He was adamantine in his resistance to the equality of women, praising their role in family and church yet supporting the societal and institutional structures that make certain that role remains subservient to male power. No “altar girls” (female acolytes, though the American Catholic Church frequently ignores this silliness); no women priests nor even discussion of it as a theological possibility; no contraception of any kind in spite of the poverty, disease, and political strife that come from overpopulation. Promotion of Opus Dei, the secretive and ultra-conservative organization that works where none may observe (including beatification of its founder). Theological homogenization as the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith (the office formerly known as the Inquisition), headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, quashed free inquiry and debate in many areas and tightened Rome’s reins on the church at large and the clergy in particular. Slowness to address the sexual scandals around pedophile priests (yes, they eventually addressed it, but only under great duress—not unlike presidential commissions formed in spite of the president’s stated desire not to go there).
As I said above: mixed. May he rest in peace, along with Saul Bellow, Terri Schiavo, Archbishop Iakovos, and the tens of thousands of untrumpeted dead who fall victim to famine, flood, disease, war, sundry accidents, and the effects of oppression and corruption. May light perpetual shine upon them and the joys of paradise be their portion.