|The first words with which the newly elected Pope John Paul II addressed the people of Rome in 1978 were "Be not afraid!" This exhortation with which angels and prophets address people in the Scriptures (before announcing the appearance of God) remained the main theme of his pontificate. The Pope has described contemporary civilization as a civilization of fear: as a prison consisting of many fears, of panic forced out from the subconscious that determines the behavior, the condition, and the views of a contemporary man. In righting one's self, in liberation, in taking heart, in restoring elemental dignity, the dignity of God's beloved creation, in all these he saw the impact of the Gospels' good news that he kept proclaiming to the world with all his powers (and during the last years of his life – with super-human powers, overcoming his own physical suffering). "To show the world God, as bright as the day," he used to quote his favorite Polish poet. To show Him as an immense Love, in which alone there is salvation from intimidation and slavery. As an all-liberating Truth. As the infinitely new, next to which the sensational novelties of progress are nothing but decrepit rags. One could feel that great fearlessness in his very person – before the opinions and judgments of people, before many accepted determinations, that seemingly were not subject to rethinking, before the demands of the "renewal" of tradition at any price. He was not afraid of what is called meekness in the world: to ask for forgiveness, to express gratitude, to serve others, and to forgive. He was totally unafraid of being "Christ's pupil" (as he defined himself in the latest elaboration).2
The civilization of fear and hopelessness that assumed the form of total cynicism – that is, the world he had addressed, calling upon his contemporaries to be courageous enough to hope.
He was loved by everyone who happened to see and to hear him (these number millions on all the continents), but very few have listened to him. Once in Ireland (where soon after his visit I happened to be), I was told how crowds of people kneeling listened to his words about the need for peace and forgiveness with tears in their eyes – and he had hardly left when IRA terrorist actions were renewed. His proposals about a solution to various conflicts (not only political and religious ones, but also old arguments of faith and reason, the church and freedom of creativity) have remained largely without an answer. The "auspicious summer," the "changing of the face of the earth," which the first Slavic Pope wanted to proclaim on our earth, as we can see, has not come to pass. In any case, as everyone could see, His messenger, His witness, John Paul II from year to year, more and more obviously, bore the stigmata of martyrdom on himself. But "woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!" He repeated the words of the Apostle Paul.
The last historical book of the Scriptures – the Acts of the Apostles – is an open, incomplete book. John Paul II saw his life as a continuation of this book in the most direct, the most unreinterpreted meaning of this word. He felt himself to be one of them, very, very close to the very beginning. This feeling of his was prayerful and mysterious. Nothing else can explain the love he felt for every human being and, as a matter of fact, for every creature: it was love from there.
He was a poet, a theologian, and a philosopher. He defended inspiration and beauty when "free artists" eradicated them, announcing the "death of the author," the "death of writing," and many other deaths. He defended reason when contemporary thinkers almost unanimously lost faith in the mind's capabilities. He spoke of cultural work as the highest realization of man when the "proletarians of culture" themselves found in culture and language only "repressive structure." "Let us nevertheless hope that beauty will save the world, as it is said in Dostoevsky," he said to me as we parted at the end of one of our meetings.
He loved Russian culture and knew it very well. In his encyclicals we can find quotes from Russian poets, novelists, and thinkers (Khomyakov, Vladimir Solovyov, Father Pavel Florensky, Father Sergei Bulgakov, Vyacheslav Ivanov). He was attracted by the Eastern Orthodox tradition of which he advised his flock to become acquainted with the beauty and richness (a series of encyclicals is dedicated to this theme and the pinnacle of them is Orientate Lumen (The Light from the East), an admiring and refined description of several of the most fundamental characteristics of Eastern Christianity). He listened to the lessons of hesychastic "mental prayer." He revered Byzantine icons and prayed before the image of the Kazan Mother of God, the icon, which, in his own words, saved his life after the attempt on his life. He had it transferred to a Russian church last year. Since I happened to see the Pope praying before this icon, I can confirm that he decided to give away his most precious possession. During these exalted days of parting I do not want to mention how it was received. It is bitter and shameful to think how Russia responded to his love and generosity.
I have already said that John Paul II had a gift to inspire hope and encouragement in everyone who met him. I know this from my own experience because I was honored four times to participate in the Solovyov Gatherings, the meetings in his chambers, conversations at dinner of a small group of guests from Moscow (every time Sergei Averintsev was among them) and French scholars studying Vladimir Solovyov. The Pope spoke to everyone about his or her interest, to me – about poetry.
Nevertheless, my strongest impression comes from a different meet¬ing. At the end of 1999, I watched from afar the Millennium of Disabled in St. Peter's Square (on account of the end of the millennium, in its final year, each Sunday was dedicated to a different category of people: I had the opportunity to see the Millennium of Policemen and the Millennium of the Disabled). Crowds of disabled people, physical and mental invalids, passed in front of him, receiving his blessing. The Pope sat in his chair and was himself crippled by his ailment. Disabled people from around the world passed before the great man with a disability. But after they received their blessing, they underwent a change, they beamed with joy. I was especially struck by the change in the faces of a group of mentally challenged children who, it would seem, could simply not react to anything. In his speech for this jubilee, John Paul II said that precisely in this image of the cripple, humankind approaches the threshold of a new millennium. For this he had enough strength, at least for a short time, to give back happiness to them. "Be not afraid! You are loved."
Now from the broadcasts and announcements we find out that his death has become a similarly uplifting and enlightening occasion for many people on earth in different Christian and non-Christian countries. "I have never seen people with this kind of face in Paris," one of my French acquaintances told me on the phone. I am immensely grieved t hat we have ended up removed from this universal human event, the farewells to a great soul who visited our world with gratitude toward it and the One to whom it said: "I am all yours."
|Translated by Slava I. Yastremski
|1 "I am all Yours, Mary" is the motto on the Pope's coat of arms.
2 Answering a journalist's question as to how he, a person, whose smallest details of life are publicly made known, continues to produce the impression of mysteriousness, the Pope answered: "You just need to see me as Christ's pupil."