On Sunday, May 1, Pope John Paul II was beatified before hundreds of thousands in Saint Peter’s Square. On the same day Navy Seal commandos killed Osama Bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Two world famous men; two remarkably different lives.
I was privileged to be present for John Paul’s beatification. Because I am part of a Vatican commission that meets around the same time every year, I also happened to be at the Vatican for the Pope’s funeral five years before. Both events were overwhelming. On the day before the Pope’s funeral a seemingly endless procession of people from all over the world moved reverently past his open casket all through the night and into the dawn of the day of the funeral itself. For the funeral Mass the crowds filled the great Piazza of St. Peter’s and jammed the entire half mile long boulevard of the Via della Conciliazione that runs from the basilica to the Tiber. It was not a random crowd; rather, you had the sense of being part of one people united in purpose and deep emotion. When the Pope’s casket first came into view near the outdoor altar on the steps of St. Peter’s, a rush of emotion rolled through that vast crowd of hundreds of thousands like a clap of thunder.
I had never witnessed such a vast gathering of human beings in one place in all my life—until it was duplicated on May 1st. Late on Saturday, the eve of the beatification, I walked through the great piazza in front of St. Peter’s and in the surrounding streets. There was already an enormous crowd, most of them young adults, prepared to spend the night waiting for the next day’s ceremony. They were armed with sleeping bags and sandwiches, and the Italian government—as they had at the funeral—helped with mounds of bottled water and portable toilets on practically every corner. Groups prayed and sang hymns. There was an atmosphere of spontaneous joy and deep feeling, a remarkable and moving atmosphere I had not anticipated.
The Mass of Beatification itself was a glorious ceremony, with soaring music and the kind of dramatic liturgical pageantry that only the Vatican can muster, with Pope Benedict at the end of the entrance procession standing in his improbable white jeep and waving to the crowds. But the driving force of the ceremony was again that crowd, pulsating with emotion and energy. When Pope Benedict solemnly declared his immediate predecessor beatified (by the way, the first time in history this was ever done) and a giant portrait of John Paul II was unveiled on the façade of the basilica, the vast crowd roared its approval with a force that came in waves across the assembly and echoed off the façade of the basilica and was sustained for several minutes. You could see the heads of state and other VIP’s that had front row seats close to the main altar turn and look with amazement at the intensity of the response.
There was a new feature to this ceremony that I had not experienced before: after the Pope’s homily (which was very personal and touching) and after communion, an announcement was made in several languages asking for a time of silent prayer. Perhaps even more impressive than the waves of applause and shouts of joy was the experience of standing with several hundred thousand people—an assembly stretching as far as the eye could see—and hearing only reverent and purposeful silence!
Why this outpouring for Pope John Paul II? Seeing clips of his appearances on the giant TV screens in St. Peter’s square in the days surrounding the beatification confirmed what everyone knows—he was a charismatic personality, a religious rock star, perhaps the most traveled world leader in all of history, someone the cameras could not help but love. Despite the outpouring, some have legitimately questioned the advisability of this fast track beatification, coming so soon after the Pope’s death and with insufficient time to weigh the impact and effectiveness of his papacy, including the grave issue of clerical sexual abuse which some say Pope John Paul did not address forcefully enough.
But standing with those crowds on Sunday, May 1, and especially noting that, as at the funeral, so many were young people from around the globe, I think there is more to it. Cardinal Angelo Amato, whose Vatican department was charged with the beatification process, noted that the beatification was not a judgment on John Paul’s papacy as such but on his personal holiness. I think that is the key to what drew so many to him. I doubt that many of the young men and women who camped out in that square and found inspiration in Pope John Paul II cared that much about the policies and programs of his papacy. But what did draw them to him is that they found in him something sorely lacking in most of our world leaders: a person of integrity, of genuine holiness, someone with a fearless sense of justice, and an evident and compassionate love for people. Someone, in short, who lived his Christian faith. What is also remarkable, I think, is that the vast throngs of young people who admired and even loved John Paul II, were drawn not to a fashionable, handsome, and sleek person but for many of the latter years his time as Pope to an old man, bent with suffering and pain, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease robbing him of his handsome face and eloquent voice, taking halting steps with a cane. But everyone could also see that this man bore his sufferings with courage and dignity and never deviated from his deepest values and sense of faith. Simply put, for millions of Christians the world over, Pope John Paul II was a Christ figure. For many other people of good will, Christian or not, he was recognized as a genuinely good and true human being—and therefore a sign of hope the world over.
Bin Laden was also admired by many for his commitment and perseverance and sacrifice. But he was a symbol of relentless vengeance and, in the pursuit of his cause, he brought suffering and death to thousands of innocent people. Tragically, his life represented violence and hatred.
Seldom, if ever, have the lives—and deaths—of two world figures, whose stories were unexpectedly entwined on May 1, 2011, stood in such stark contrast.
By Donald Senior, C.P., President and Professor of New Testament Studies.
Copyright 2011 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved.