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The Pope's call to holiness.


Dan Rather maybe got it better than anybody. He was reminiscing over CBS radio back in 1983, shortly after Cardinal Terence Cooke had died on the 6th of October. A priest came out on the steps of the cathedral, according to Mr. Rather, and told reporters the cardinal had been given Holy Communion "to help him on his journey to the Father in heaven.' If the beat-up notes I have before me are accurate, Mr. Rather said at the time: "I was so struck by that simple utterance. And I realized that I love it when clergymen speak in those terms--when rabbis and ministers and priests speak of belief. It reminds us of what religion is, and what it is the other fellow holds close to his heart. In the case of Cardinal Cooke, that was made clear in his final days, in the way he lived and the rather special way he died--with belief and joy apparently intact.'

I dug the Rather broadcast out of the file, because as I walked and talked with, watched and prayed with our Holy Father on his pilgrimage in our land, the same Rather words overrode so many hundreds of thousands of others I heard and read about the papal visit. I am not sure our country has ever been subjected to so many inanities, so many shallow analyses of what a visit was all about.

If we read once, we read a thousand times that the crowds were far smaller than anticipated; disastrously fewer pennants, buttons, papal caps, and T-shirts were sold than had been produced; and millions of Catholics were supposedly alienated, estranged, discouraged, turned-off, disgusted, embarrassed, revolted, and generally infuriated. "60 Minutes' added to the aura of dismay by introducing us to a pastor who has allegedly been cavorting with his housekeeper in a manner usually frowned upon by more conservative bishops.

More frequently than not, I regret having to confess, my answers to questions were as superficial as were the questions themselves. "Do you think the pope has lost his popularity? Is what he said about dissent going to discourage some Catholics? Do you think he really understands American Catholics? Does he think the Church is falling apart in the United States? Is he really listening to what people are saying? Does he care what women think, what priests think, what bishops think? Does he? Is he? Will he? Why can't he? What's it all about, Alfie?'

And all the while our Holy Father was saying one thing and the same thing, over and over and over, with unutterable simplicity: "Receive Jesus. He will help you on your journey to the Father in heaven.' In so many words that was the message. This was a priest speaking of his belief, a belief so straightforward and so intense that it penetrates and illuminates everything this man does, every word he speaks. This is a man for whom Jesus is life itself, a man who sees Jesus in everyone he meets, wherever he goes. He is a man who maintains his uninterrupted communion with Jesus Christ amid all the turbulence, the travels, the crowds, the noise, the fatigue.

From my viewpoint, those who failed to capture this simple message in this pope's visit failed to understand the visit altogether. This man was calling us to holiness, not only to keeping the Commandments. He was not simply exhorting the married to honor their vows, the single to be chaste, the priest and the religious to be celibate. He was not merely indicting racism, pleading for social justice, advocating for the poor. He was reminding us of why all this should be the stuff of our daily lives. He was telling us, again and again, that we "best move this world by making it clear that we stand upon another' --not simply another world, but on Christ Himself. But what he was telling us he told with far more than words; he told it all with the intensity of his own passionate belief.

While it has been my privilege to visit with our Holy Father from time to time on a very personal basis, I saw this time what has always been there, but which, distracted by trivia in the past, I have failed to see quite so clearly before. We are taught that faith is a free gift from God; none of us can earn it. But I believe now that this pope pays an enormous price for the intensity and the constancy. It seems to me that he engages Jesus Christ in prayer at every moment. He is a man who has made the decision: that we cannot serve two masters. He has made the leap into the unknown. He has truly abandoned everything to follow Jesus, to be with, to speak with, to listen to, to transmit, reflect, radiate Jesus. This seems to me to be his idea of the very reason for his existence as pope.

This is a dimension far beyond what he says, but it permeates everything he says and gives it a radiantly different life from its life in ordinary language.

None of which is to suggest for a moment that the Holy Father was caught up in some highly personalistic interpretation of the Gospel he had come to "impose' on others. Nor was there one word that deviated from either the letter or the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, despite the snide comments from detractors about his "interpretation' (read "distortion') of council documents.

And speaking of the Second Vatican Council: time after time during the pope's visit, I heard him compared, unfavorably of course, with Pope John XXIII, that jolly man for whom, we are told, anything went. It is a marvel, indeed, to listen to the comparisons made, particularly in respect to Vatican II. According to such, John XXIII had only one concern in life: to make people "happy.' The same reports imply that he was fed up with traditional Church teaching, with all its "negatives,' its structures, its antiquated demands on human beings, its old-fashioned morality. John XXIII, we are given to understand, wanted to modernize the Church, while John Paul II wants to set it back a thousand years.

Here is what Pope John XXIII actually said about the council he called:

"The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously . . .. The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the council in regard to doctrine . . .. [The] council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout 20 centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is always a rich treasure available to men of good will.'

Pope John Paul II describes the purpose of the council in essentially identical terms. I suspect that what those who attack him so ferociously either don't know or don't care about is not that he differs from John XXIII, but that he doesn't differ. They hate him, not because he rejects the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, but because he teaches it in its fullness. So once again, they tried to "kill' the messenger. Once again, they failed, because he loves them too much to let them succeed.

Photo: Cardinal John J. O'Connor is one of the strongest American supporters of Pope John Paul II. A prolific commentator, he authored In Defense of Life, is establishing an AIDS hospital, and is a member of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic.

Photo: Pope John Paul II embraces a five-year-old San Jose AIDS victim who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion.

Photo: First Lady Nancy Reagan shares concerns with Pope John Paul II during his visit to Los Angeles--his, to save souls; hers, to save young people from the ravages of drugs.

Photo: The pope reaches out with a special message for the little people wherever he travels throughout his global parish.

Photo: (Left) President Reagan greets the pope during his ten-day visit in America. (Avove) Mother Teresa, herself no slouch at traveling, visit His Holiness at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.
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Author:O'Connor, John J. Cardinal
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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