Crossing the Threshold of Hope

The image that will remain etched in our minds is the frustrated gesture he made on Easter. The Pope grabbing the microphone in the failed attempt to voice his blessing on the waiting crowd, only to cover his face with his hands. Or the silent whisper let out on his last public appearance at his apartment’s window on Piazza San Pietro, on March 30th.

The last steps of the earthly journey of John Paul II embody the mystery of the Christian calling: there is no contradiction between the "athlete of God," — the pontiff who liked to ski the most difficult slopes, to the scandalized bafflement of many — and the little frail man, stooped under the weight of age, the illness, and the Cross. The priest hanging by a ever thinner thread to his life is the very same who, as the President of the Italian Episcopal Conference (IEC) Cardinal Camillo Ruini said, "can already see and feel the Lord."

Ruini did not choose his words casually: "see" and "feel" are verbs permeated by a deep materiality. The most important legacy of John Paul II is perhaps his stressing the importance of the flesh. The Pope does not belong to that host of moralists that define their Christianity along the lines of abstinence: life is to be sucked dry. In a rather jocular turn of the phrase, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi explained once that the goal of the Christian is to enter Heaven, if at all possible, with a full belly. Catholicism — added Biffi — is the "religion of tortellini." It is not by chance that all the major heresies are rooted in a spiritualist bent: the negation of the material world or, at the very least, the banishment of the flesh to the horizon of evil.

The Holy Father never ceded to this temptation. He was always able to share with the world his deep love of life and its joys, including the material ones. His unprecedented habit of kissing the soil of the countries he visited, his unfailing smile, his very willingness to make apparent his current suffering, everything about him reveals the certainty that Catholicism’s promise is a total one: our soul’s salvation goes along with our body’s resurrection.

It is no surprise, then, that the red thread of this Papacy was the emphasis on the theme of life. The worst threat today doesn’t come much from materialism, but its opposite, namely the notion that human life is somehow less significant than the dizzy heights of the spirit, that material life is a sort of hindrance, the necessary and unpleasant premise to a sublimated eternity. Quite the opposite: the Bishop of Rome — as Ruini remarked — "lived, worked, suffered, rejoiced" with "the same inner peacefulness and trusting abandonment in the hands of God" with which he is facing his death bed.

On the pages of last Saturday’s Corriere della Sera Vittorio Messori painted an "already sanctified hero," able to put together "the freedom of the children of God and the discipline of the obedient Catholics." This is a Pope who managed to defuse the terrible tension pervading the Church at the time of his election: the tension between the flight from past orthodoxy and the instinctive closing within its own ranks. Wojtyla conceived a Church capable of coming to terms with the modern world without betraying the heritage of two thousand years of history or surrendering the claim to a timeless Truth.

Messori also defined him as "the first color Pope," whereas Pius XII was a "radio Pope," John XIII a "proto-television" one, and Paul VI a "black and white" one. The Pope gave himself fully to the mass media. He went as far as to allow — if not to welcome — the insistent gaze of the cameras on his tired and gaunt features, his palsied hands, his gravelly voice. In so doing, he could turn the newspeople into God’s people, making of his own illness, in the days in which its effects are particularly devastating, a formidable tool of conversion. The pain of this Polish Pope, witnessed by the whole world, is an echo of the passion of Christ. Neither of them hid themselves from view. The bodies of Christ and his Vicar are marked by the burning wounds that hurt the flesh as well as the spirit.

And both found solace in the same figure: the mother. "I am happy" — whispered the Pope from his death bed — "You be, too. Let us pray together in bliss. Let us happily entrust everything to the Virgin Mary." Bliss, a bliss that overcomes every other thought, propels the man from the East into the bosom of the Virgin. She will be the One to reach for his hand and to escort him, crossing the threshold of hope.