He was spiritual, religious, charismatic, prayerful, full of grace, kind and gentle. He was gentile and unflinchingly firm in espousing his principles. He was a prince of peace and a man of forgiveness. He was an athlete and a victim and survivor of violence. He was a Pole, an unflinching foe of wars and Godless governments and, for 26 years, pope to the world’s Catholics. He was imperfect and ever striving toward his God’s vision of perfection.
He will be a hard act to follow.
In 84 years, John Paul II earned and displayed all those attributes, achievements and qualities until he died peacefully eight days ago.
And yet he was so much more.
This common man became an uncommon leader because he fearlessly, naturally exhibited one other vital quality for all the world to see: his humanity.
More than any other trait, it is that one that created the foundation for the past week’s amazing scenes in Vatican City. Like many, we have been astounded as we saw the endless masses of Catholics, non-Catholics and non-believers alike pour out their love, joy and sadness. For three days, their unfettered emotions illuminated our TVs as an estimated 2 million people paraded in a reverent line, for some up to 14 hours, to spend a few seconds offering thanks and praying as they glimpsed John Paul II’s time-worn body one last time as it lay in state.
Here and elsewhere around Earth, millions more faces have been adorned with the same look of humbled awe at this king of humanity. To be human is to be fallible, or imperfect, more than it is to be a king, of course. What this pope taught us was that the path to infallibility is carved not by kings and not by superhumans, but by mere mortals performing everyday acts that show our love and caring for each other.
Most certainly, John Paul II upset many with some of his beliefs that seemed at times saddled in yesterday’s logic. The most obvious was his unfathomable inability or unwillingness to come down harder on Catholic priests who either abused children or protected the abusers from receiving justice for their crimes against humanity.
Despite such flaws, last week’s display showed us that when the last breath left this pope his spirit surely ascended his hand-carved path to the heavens. His humanity paved the way and by letting us see him for who he was, John Paul II allowed millions of people to see themselves reflected in his serene face, fixed resolutely on his God who is infallible.
That’s why the crowds were overwhelming and church people and those unchurched have sung his praises to the heavens. If a simple priest from Poland can create the legendary mantle of John Paul II, men and women and children everywhere know that the path we take isn’t about being born perfect in order to be perfect. It is achieved when we are willing to bear the weight of caring for others who are struggling.