A radical faith

Death brings us all back to earth. So Pope John Paul II has died and has left his responsibilities to others. Christians believe that the God who loved him as Karol has now welcomed him to share Christ’s life. For them nothing that the Pope did is more important than his adamantine faith in this Good News. They will find an adequate response to his death in prayer and gratitude.

Fallen human beings, however, look for the epithets, sound bites, places and events that sum up a life and a papacy.  Some search in Poland. I find it in Assisi, the town to which in 1986 the Pope invited leaders of the world’s religions to join him in praying for world peace.

As more generally with Pope John Paul II, what he did in Assisi was more important than what he said. He was a master of the symbolic gesture. We need to think only of his practice of kissing the earth as he arrived in each land he visited, and of his meeting with his would-be assassin. The gestures spoke more powerfully than any explanation could.

The gesture at Assisi gave shape to two major emphases of the Second Vatican Council. The council committed the Catholic Church to share the desire of ordinary human beings for peace and a decent life, and to reach out affectionately to the members of other churches and religions. John Paul II

found many new gestures: he was the first pope to preach in a Lutheran church, the first pope in recorded memory to visit a synagogue, the first pope to enter a mosque, and almost certainly the first pope to kiss the Qur’an.

But what he did at Assisi was different because it was uncontrolled. There the Pope was seen as one of many religious leaders. They were invited to pray in their own way in Catholic churches of the city. The sight of the Pope in Assisi to pray as one Christian among other Christians, as one theist among other theists,
disturbed many Christians both within and without the Catholic Church. Its consequences are vast and have yet to be articulated. But he was unperturbed.

He chose the town of Assisi deliberately. He wished to associate the event with St Francis of Assisi, on whose life he often reflected. Francis had gone unarmed to the Muslim king in Syria at a time when the dominant form of Christian contact with Islam was at the point of a sword. The life and simplicity of Francis, too, appealed beyond Catholic and Christian boundaries to people of many faiths and none.

But Francis also embodied the way in which the Pope believed that he himself was called to engage with the world. At a time when the Church was widely regarded as out of touch both with the Gospel and with peoples’ lives, Francis offered a way of reconnection that was wild and beyond rational planning. He offered poverty—selling everything, poor living, celebration of God’s creation, and encouragement in popular language to live the Gospel. Francis’ gesture was new and unpredictable—a circuit-breaker. It was a model for the meeting at Assisi.

But as described by the Pope, Francis’ radical gesture comes out of a radical faith. At its heart was a deep following of Jesus Christ and acceptance of his path of suffering. It also rested on solidarity with the Catholic Church and the Pope. His gesture was a gift to the Church, where it could be radical and powerful in its effects.

Underlying John Paul’s invitation to Assisi was the same radical commitment to share the passion of Christ, to live within the Church, and to reach confidently out beyond the predictable and safe. Their welding together marked his whole papacy.

For John Paul, the popes are the ones providentially appointed to make such gestures. For others, the Spirit breathes in the Church more eclectically. But, one would hope, no less radically.     

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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