The elevation to sainthood of Pope John Paul II gives me a happy feeling. In his long and eventful papacy, he spoke to me on political and human levels.
He became the Pope from Poland on October 16, 1978 (my 21st birthday, by the way) when communism still ruled over Eastern Europe and Russia. He was subtle and tactically brilliant in confronting the Evil Empire and its lackeys in Poland. I recall that after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, John Paul II warned Soviet leaders that if the Red Army invaded Poland, he would personally go to Poland to lead the resistance. Having lived in Poland during the Nazi occupation, he knew the value and costs of resistance. I hope I’m remembering the story accurately; I can’t find documentation for it, but the thought remains deeply lodged in my associations with John Paul II. He was fearless.
Fast-forward two decades. Poland is free, the USSR has been swept into the dustbin of history, and John Paul II is dying. Cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and assassination attempts all took their toll on the man. He was clearly ailing in his public appearances. In the weeks before his death on April 2, 2005, I remember walking past The Church of Our Savior at 38th Street and Park Avenue in New York, on a spring evening a few days before his passing. A large sign on an easel outside the church said, “Pray for Pope John Paul II.”
That made me think. The Pope no doubt had a great degree of spiritual peace in his declining days, sureness in what awaited him in the World to Come. But he still needed prayers, for recovery of health and his comfort. He kept hanging in there as Pope despite his decline. The thought that came to mind: Even if you have absolute faith in the certainty of an afterlife, you don’t have to be in a big rush to get there. Like the movie title says, heaven can wait; it ain’t going anywhere.
Life in human society, among friends and family, offers great rewards whatever the difficulties. I like to think John Paul II rather liked being alive right to the end and would go only when the proper moment came. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. The afterlife is long, so, so long.
His last words to aides on April 2 were “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”). Finally, Pope John Paul II was ready.