Like everyone born since 1978, John Paul II was the only Pope I have known. Insofar as I thought about him as a kid (which I didn't very much), he was a given: the shepherd of the Church, the "man at the top," whom we always prayed for at Mass on Sunday; other than that, it was difficult to tell what he had to do with Catholics in Random Suburb, USA. It was not until I was in high school, and had to contend with a Catholic school whose identity was compromised, and whose religion department provided either twaddle or dissent, that I first began to think more seriously about him. For at this same time, he promulgated the Catechism, and I toddled around to the local Catholic bookstore and bought a copy. I remember the reaction of the cashier, a middle-aged woman: she was very happy that a young man, on his own initiative, decided to take his faith more seriously, and to go to an authoritative source for guidance. Now, I didn't actually start studying the Catechism in earnest until many years later, but there was a tremendous confidence in knowing that it existed, and that it was on my shelf if I needed it. That confidence was not only spurred by the Catechism, but by the man who gave it to me; in the act of its promulgation, I saw the universal pastor take up his staff and smite the wolf firmly on the head.
Shortly thereafter I had what we might call my "liturgical crisis," and said a novena to St. Jude for the restoration of Latin in the liturgy. I was not sure how or when it was to be answered until I got to the University of Illinois, ran into their Newman Foundation, and learned that my intial notion of "put Latin back and it will all be better" was an imperfect handle on the much broader problem of authentic liturgical renewal. And here, too, I learned that our Holy Father cared about it as well, whether in properly celebrating the new rite or making the old more widely available.
I learned about his vast outpouring of encylicals, apostolic letters, exhortations, homilies, etc. I watched in fascination as he canonized "ordinary" saint after saint. My friends brought back glowing reports from this unusual thing called "World Youth Day." In reading his writings I was also struck by his concern for youth, a concern that conceded nothing to popular taste or evanescent fashion. He loved young people, and because of that very love challenged us to be saints, placing before us the timeless truth of the Christian faith. And because he loved us, we trusted him, and took up his challenge.
Like many of my generation, I grew up with ugly, broken, disjointed teaching about sexuality, dis-integrated, no transcendent aspects, everything reduced to physical facts, warring passions, and Gnostic disdain for the gift of physicality. What a comfort it was to discover that our pastor was also a theological weapons expert, and has left us with what many call a "time bomb," that brings healing instead of destruction: his "Theology of the Body," which I have only begun to explore.
I am deeply saddened at his passing. I dread the day when I will lose my physical father, and if the sorrow I feel now at losing my spiritual father is anything like what I will feel on that day, may God give me the strength to bear it. And yet sorrow is tempered with joy, the joy of knowing that he now concelebrates at the eternal liturgy, the joy of knowing that he is now more alive than any of us are. Let us sing the unfashionably "triumphalist" hymn Long Live the Pope, and rejoice in the midst of our tears.
But I also see the hand of Satan at work; in others, I see sadness turning into worry and even fear for the future. I have heard the dire predictions that John Paul II would be our last "holy" Pope, and that there will only be two more Popes after him before the end of the world, and other apocalyptica. It may be true, for all I know. But that's just it: I don't know. I don't know what is coming, neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will return. I don't know who the next Pope will be, nor do I wish to speculate. I do know that God loves his children, and that he is the Good Shepherd, who will not leave his flock unguarded. I trust that, whoever our next Pope is, he will be God's choice. And that is enough for me.
"Be not afraid," John Paul the Great taught us, for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tombs.