I was 16 years old when the pope came to my hometown of Denver. There were weeks of preparation for his arrival, from the planning of his route to the specifics of his diet. Billboards announcing the dates of the pope’s presence competed with billboards advertising the upcoming Wrestlemania event. People waited for days along the parade route just to get a glimpse of the pontiff. From the popemobile to the massive security effort around the city, the pope coming to town seemed to be one huge logistical nightmare. As a born-and-raised Baptist, I wasn’t really sure what to make of the pope. So my friends and I referred to the event as "pope-a-mania" and tried to ignore the whole thing.
It has been 15 years since the Pope came to Denver, and I have grown older and perhaps a little wiser. The news of John Paul II’s death struck a chord with me as I remembered back to that year he visited Denver. After all, he is the only pope that I can remember. With age and maturity, I have come to understand some of the key theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Many of the differences are central to the Christian faith and leave little room for compromise. But as I have watched the tidal wave of news coverage and the extensive ceremony around his funeral, I have tried to understand what made Karol Wojtyla such a beloved figure to the Catholic Church.
In the days since his death, there have been two types of reports on John Paul II. The first trumpet his grand accomplishments on the stage of international politics and his impact on global issues. His influence and visibility can hardly be overstated. He traveled more than any pope in recent history, visiting more than 100 countries. He is widely credited with reaching out to leaders from many different religions, Judaism in particular. There can be no question that he played a significant role in world events.
The second and lesser-known stories relate to John Paul II’s humility, goodness and humanity. In a day and age where people in positions of influence and power have a tendency to dismiss those of a lesser station, John Paul II seemed to buck the trend. There have been myriad stories of his ability to listen and make those around him feel important. He had a lively sense of self-deprecating humor and liked to laugh. He evidently had quite a sweet tooth. Every little personal note that I have read leads me to believe that he was full of joy and life.
Carl Sandburg named the next-to-last chapter in his mammoth biography on Abraham Lincoln: "A tree is best measured when it is down." It is difficult to fully appreciate the actions and words of great men when they are alive. There is always the anticipation of something more when they are still with us. The same is true for me with regard to John Paul II. Although he was constantly in the news and was quoted frequently, I never recognized him as a very visible example of Christlikeness. With the opportunity to now view his contributions in full, I regret seeing only pope-a-mania while overlooking the greatness of a true servant leader.[Chris Tryon is not Catholic, but has submitted his resume to the College of Cardinals anyway. He figures having kids and living in Texas may also count against his chances at the papacy.]
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