The secular media is hard at it, trying to make sense of the life and death of Pope John Paul II. Most of the commentary does its best to stick a caricature of the pope alongside the yardstick of the commentator’s meager agenda: politically, he helped end the cold war. Socially, he was a rigid anti-progressive. Religiously, he was an obstructionist. But nonetheless, because he was a great actor and unusually energetic as well, his popularity and impact will go down in history.
Thus far the commentators. But I don’t think John Paul II saw things that way. He was a man who lived his life slightly outside of history, at least as contemporary historians see it.
Contemplating the Pope’s crossing of "The Threshold of Hope," the historical figure who first comes to mind is Augustine, the great bishop, theologian, and Father of the Church who wrote in the early fifth century, in the last days of the Roman Empire — the demise of which he did not mourn. "What does it matter," he asked, "under what government a dying man lives, so long as his government does not force him to iniquity?"
Well, there are many iniquitous governments these days, to be sure, and John Paul II had a hand in laying more than a few of them to rest. But with all that — in spite of it, really — this pope, like Augustine, spoke to what historian Christopher Dawson called "a dying world."
For Augustine, the world that was dying was Rome, the "center of the universe" for an ecumenical empire that had lasted a thousand years. While Rome crumbled around him, however, Augustine did not measure life by Rome’s yardstick, but by the life that lay beyond it, in this world and, especially, in the next. For the first time (and without even trying) he found meaning in "history" — a direction, a beginning and an end, a creator and a goal, all in the context of an eternity profoundly defined by Divine Providence’s plan for salvation.
Augustine deflated the modernists of his own time as John Paul confounded our own, but neither were pessimists. They were filled with hope because of the promise of eternal salvation. While death touches us all, it is the doorway to eternal life, and thus cannot be viewed, in isolation, as an evil — even though it is the consequence of sin. The "first death," says Augustine, is the loss of physical life. All of us must undergo it (even though contemporary Hobbesians avoid it like the plague). For Augustine, it is the second death — the eternal loss of God — that we must avoid above all. It might grate on the modern consciousness, but Augustine’s view of man’s eternal goal constitutes the intellectual foundation for western civilization, including our modern notions of limited government — preserving beyond the reach of politics the realm of man’s individual freedom to address his most important task — salvation.
After all, if man has no goal above this earthly life, he has no legitimate claim to freedom from earthly powers — for there would be no "higher law" that he could appeal to. By announcing that law in his powerful City of God, Augustine profoundly changed the future of the west — and Christendom — without really trying to.
Without Augustine’s vision beyond earthly history, reflected in Jefferson’s Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, the world of the twenty-first century would have no more chance than the dying world for which Augustine wrote the epitaph. Like Ozymandias, our world would lie supine and still under the desert sand. Indeed, if this is all there is, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and their very contemporary heirs are right: fear — especially fear of death — is the highest evil, and there is no highest good. And the Leviathan is the inexorable consequence.
But not for John Paul II. Like Augustine, he addressed a dying world — a dying Europe, a dying west, a dying faith, a century overflowing with death and lies, a world wallowing in a spiritless life. Against all that, the pope tirelessly taught lessons of life, spirited, challenging, loving lessons inspired by faith, hope, and love. Until the moment that he crossed the threshold, he taught us that, because life has meaning beyond earthly death, then death has meaning beyond earthly life. It is this "sign of contradiction" that confounds the worldly but that gives hope to the faithful. Hence in death the pope’s model was Christ on the Cross, who sanctifies the suffering of even the weakest and most helpless among us.
Augustine’s impact on Western Civilization was fundamental. But few of his contemporaries could have imagined it. After all, he spoke of timeless "religious" truths while the Roman world was falling apart all around him. In like fashion, Pope John Paul II faced a western world that is becoming less civilized with each passing day. But his influence on whatever form of civilization might come next could well endure for another millennium.
In the last works and days of his earthly life, the pope’s final gift came in his affirmation of the dignity of suffering — and thus of the value of life and, especially, of eternal life. On Saturday, we are told, his thoughts were of gratitude — to those gathered outside on Saint Peter’s Square praying for him — and to Christ on the Cross, as Mass was celebrated next to his sickbed while death hovered nearby.
In the end, the meaning of life, of death, and of suffering came together in one man for one moment — in Rome last Saturday, as in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It is the same with every life. Infinite goodness and eternal life beckon us from beyond our burdens. And those eternal verities free us from the worldly powers of iniquity and death without end.
John Paul II faced a dying world and called on it to seek eternal life, and, in that spirit — indeed because of it — to live this life, and celebrate it, and protect it, to the fullest. If our response is hesitant and filled with trepidation — and who is not "of little faith" among us? — his words on the first day of his papacy have echoed through every day since: "Non avete paura" — "Be not afraid!"