Volume 18 Number 3
How I Remember John Paul Ii
01 June 2005

John Paul II could capture anyone, and millions, not only by what he said but also by the way he was able to listen.

I will never forget. It was not my first encounter with the Pope but it was an exceptional one, since John Paul II rarely gave private audiences to journalists. In 1999, when I entered the Pope's office, he looked a little bored for a second but as soon as I started to speak in Polish everything changed. The Holy Father recognized me and recalled my previous visit with my wife and son.

He listened intensely to every word I had to say. At first I spoke about the goals of the International Communications Forum, the media thinktank which I chair, and the Pope gave us his blessing 'for our activity'. He asked, with great passion and concentration, for my view on the situation in Poland.

When I look now at the pictures taken, I am amazed and somewhat ashamed. As our time passed, we got closer and closer. By the end, I was leaning on his desk, as he was on the other side. I should never have done that, but I was totally taken up by the intensity of the dialogue.

Indeed, it was one of the main attributes of the charisma of John Paul II: he could capture anyone, and millions, not only by what he said but also by the way he was able to listen. He looked at you as if you were the only important person in the world, as if your words were what he needed to make up his mind. You were with him and the whole world disappeared. When after 22 minutes or so the master of ceremonies started to open the door slightly, the Pope got even closer to me and said into my ear, using Polish student slang: 'Ganiaja nas!' ('See, they're rushing us!')

This was more than just his behaviour. It was the central point of his belief and teaching: the most precious thing for him was the human being, and the totality of the person. Curiously, it reminded me of what a friend had said in India: development, he pointed out, meant-according to the Latin etymology-'taking away the veil' (de-velopment), the veil we have over our eyes and which does not allow us to see God, in ourselves or in the other. John Paul II saw God in you and thus enabled you to see God within you. A moment of truth!

Indeed his teaching was very simple. Since God chose to come to this world as a human being, every one of us must feel not only that he/she has been created in the image of God, but that he/she is part of God himself. The three levels of love-love for oneself, love for the other and love for God-are intrinsically linked and cannot be separated.

Respect for the dignity of the human person remains the alpha and omega. But we have to respect this dignity in all its aspects. John Paul II wrote, therefore, the most beautiful pages on the value of sex in love and marriage. But he also spoke forcefully about the necessity of social justice: joblessness, hunger and poverty are insults to the dignity of the person. They need to be replaced by 'solidarity'-to use another word to which the Poles have given back its full meaning. At the same time strong moral and spiritual principles, without which the dignity of the person becomes a joke, must be respected.

It is tragic that some maintain that John Paul II was 'conservative' in some areas and 'progressive' in others. This is an absurd misunderstanding. This Pope was always calling for fundamental respect for the human being, in social matters just as in moral behaviour. He was the Pope for human kind but also for the totality of the person.

During our audience, John Paul II stopped me when I said that we of the International Communications Forum had humanist agnostics participating, but the vast majority were from all the faiths. Enthusiastically he said: 'That's good; that's the way it should be!' What was most important to him was not that you were a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim; it was not important if your skin was black, white or yellow, if you came from one continent or another. What counted was that you had your values and beliefs and you were ready to live according to them. He believed, as André Malraux once said, that 'the 21st century will be the century of the spiritual or will not be'. He was convinced that all people of faith should at last work together.

Indeed this Pope was a mystic but at the same time an activist. 'Change this world!' 'Bring the light of Christ to all areas of politics and economy!' One way to achieve this was dramatically simple: 'Be a Christian for good, not by name only!' And the goal was as clear as the water of the mountain streams of his youth. We have to replace the pseudo-civilization of materialism, hedonism and consumerism, so crushing to the dignity of the person, by 'the civilization of love'. This is his legacy and this is still the task ahead of us.

So where will Pope Benedict XVI now lead us? He will certainly focus on strengthening the Church. He believes, as Benedict XV wrote in his 1917 encyclical Humanis Generis, that 'some of the things revealed by God terrorize weak and corrupt human nature and are not in a position to attract the masses'. The role of the Church, after all, 'is not to please the people but Christ'. But the alternative to the pettiness of the world, the language of truth, may well be just what people are waiting for.

Bernard Margueritte is a French journalist in Warsaw, where he lives with his Polish wife.

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