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A Halting Holiness

What was it that was so special about John Paul? He was admired for his many strengths, but perhaps it was his weaknesses that we loved him for.

By Brian Doyle

Why was the Polish playwright Karol Wojtyla indeed a superb pope, and one of the great religious leaders of modern times?

For all the reasons you would expect, of course, the feats that will echo for centuries: his creative genius for image and symbol, his courage and humor surviving an assassination attempt, the brave humility that led him to bow in prayer at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and kneel in apology for two millennia of Catholic sins, the capacious imagination and energy that helped free Poland and shatter the Iron Curtain, his clear voice against war, his relentless insistence that life was a holy gift, even the enormous physical courage he evinced in recent years as he deliberately remained a public figure as his body failed - I think in order to show the world that pain and death are not our masters, that grace under duress is a form of ferocious prayer, that the spirit outlives the body.

And so much else; so much, in fact, that I predict a thousand more books on John Paul II before the year is out.

But there is a deeper and truer reason to say that this man was wonderfully Christlike, was a spiritual exemplar of rare wattage, and paradoxically that reason is what he did badly - his thousand mistakes, his astounding stubbornness, the dense thicket of contradictions that defined his papacy as much or more than the astounding parade of his accomplishments.

For this was also the man who choked off liberation theology in Latin America when it might have toppled that haunted continent's web of corrupt governments. This was the man who presided over a church revealed worldwide to be riven with the rapes of children. This was a man who time and time again dismissed women - more than half the billion members of his church! - from any serious role and voice in the ancient corporation. This was the man who spoke warmly of the innate brotherhood of Christianity's many sects but did little practically to bind ancient rifts.

It seems to me that the worst thing that could happen to the legacy of John Paul II, now that his spirit has begun its unimaginable travels toward the Light he believed in with all his might, is to reduce him to immediate sainthood. Saintly he was, of course, and he may well have been as great a leader, in his way, as the greatest pope I have seen in my lifetime, tiny cheerful John XXIII, who had the courage in 1965 to take the Church he loved by its ancient hoary arrogant throat and shake it until the dust and hubris fell like snow. But John Paul's greatest accomplishment, I believe, is that he was so patently and daily and persistently Us - feat and flaw, virtue and vice, brilliance and blindness. This man, this priest, this servant of the faithful, evinced, on the world stage, for nearly 27 years, the essence of the Catholic faith: the crazy hope that we are capable of complete mercy and grace and courage and humility and generosity, that we are more than mammal, that against all the daily evidence of our creative cupidity and predilection for violence is the constant possibility of love, in all its billion forms.

John Paul II did not do everything well; he did some things very poorly indeed, or did not do them at all. Yet at the same time he was a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions of people - especially, and perhaps most crucially to the century he leaves behind, young people.

May he rest in peace, and be remembered with admiration and respect and prayers in our mouths; and may he be remembered best not for what he did well, but for the courage and grace with which he kept trying to rise to mercy and humility. The message of the Christ, ultimately, is not a mere church; it is an idea, a wild crazy paradoxical illogical unreasonable idea, the nutty idea that love defeats murder, life defeats death, hope defeats despair, the soul supersedes time. Karol Wojtyla devoted his life to that idea, and the seed of his greatness, it seems to me, is that his very public successes and failures, on a worldwide stage, have spread the idea to billions of people. So the man who was an actor before he accepted another job offer may well have been the greatest performer of our time; a thought that amuses him, I hope, in the brilliant new country where he lives now.

Merrick native Brian Doyle (bdoyle@up.edu) is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon's Catholic University. He is the author of five books of essays, and his new book, "The Wet Engine", about "the magic and muddle and miracle and mangle and music of hearts," will be published in May by Paraclete Press.

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