Pope admired if views not always shared

April 05, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

POPE JOHN PAUL II is being eulogized as a shining example to the entire the world in countless ways.

As a young man, he used his robust health not only to survive the Nazi occupation, but also to celebrate nature and the life of the outdoors. But he was also a poet and an actor, a linguist and a writer, celebrating, too, the life of the mind.

As pope, he was devoted to the poor and the oppressed and unafraid to take on world leaders and entire political systems, including communism and apartheid, on their behalf. But he also warned against the corrupting materialism of capitalism.

He was a stern father of the church, determined to make it more disciplined and orthodox. But young people adored him. He tolerated no dissent, but asked forgiveness for the past sins of the church.

Pope John Paul was a champion of life, from the moment of conception to the darkest prison cell. But the last days of his life were a dignified surrender to the inevitability of death.

In all these ways, and more, Pope John Paul set an example of decency, conviction and compassion that even the most agnostic among us might attend. But for my part, Pope John Paul gave me hope that in these most acrimonious times, you can passionately disagree with a man and still hold him in the highest esteem.

I am a Catholic, but I am an American Catholic. And I am an American Catholic woman. For me, Pope John Paul was a polarizing figure. He resisted any attempt to compromise the church's teachings on birth control, the ordination of women and homosexuality. And he was uncharacteristically slow to speak out against the priestly abuse of children. Of all the issues facing the church, these are the most important to me.

Yet I had -- I have -- a regard for him that I cannot seem to summon for the political leaders of our state and nation with whom I also fervently disagree.

He was a father figure to his church in the most fundamental way. His children, especially his American children, chafed against his authority at every turn. Yet he did not inspire the kind of hate-filled response and personal attack that has characterized American politics since Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

It is ironic that religion is at the center of so much of the political animosity in this country, yet this religious man inspired that kind of anger only in the most hate-filled corners of American thought.

Maybe it was his grandfatherly smile. Or the way he embraced children. Or his willingness to come down off the throne of Peter and talk tough to leaders who sought to secure their status by oppressing their own people.

For me, it came during his visit to San Francisco in September 1987, at a time when this country was still pretending that AIDS was a cosmic judgment on homosexual sinners.

"God loves you," he said in his heavily accented English, "if you are sick. God loves you if you have AIDS."

I could not believe the pope had spoken the word that our own president could not bring himself to say.

As intolerant as he was of any attempt to soften the hard lines of the Catholic church, the pope had just evoked tolerance -- no, God's love -- for those the rest of the country was still treating like modern lepers. My esteem for the man never abated.

It is hard to summon those same feelings of respectful disagreement for our political opposites in these red-state-blue-state times. It does not help matters that those across the aisle so often invoke God's name against those with whom they disagree. You are not only wrong; you are condemned.

The legacy of Pope John Paul II, for me, will always be this odd and unfamiliar mix of respect and frustration; affection and impatience; admiration and irritation. And a biblical teaching that is missing from the American political scene: that you can love the sinner without having to embrace his sin.

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