Karol Wojtyla was a good man who had the courage of deeply held convictions. His death would have been mourned by all, who knew him, but as the Pope, John Paul II, he is being mourned not only by the Catholics but people of goodwill from all religions, from all over the world. There is a very good reason for it. He earned their respect and admiration by living a life of courage and conviction, seasoned by grace, humility, understanding and empathy towards the poor, the down trodden and the dispossessed. He will affect the future beyond his years on Earth. He has left a legacy for future Popes and other religious leaders.
He was a shepherd to the Catholics, but he aspired to, tried and succeeded in being a friend to all in need, irrespective of their religion. He lived in the glare of the public eye with adulation and criticism for 26-eventful years. His opinion was sought on practically every event and subject, spiritual and temporal. Often leaders on the world stage falter, trying to navigate through the crosscurrents of politics and popular trends, or they get obsessed with their own power. Religious leaders often succumb to the lure of power and are influenced by those in power. He did not fall prey to these very real temptations.
To his critics on the left John Paul II was a conservative whose pronouncements on abortion, contraception and women’s rights have had an effect on millions of Catholics. To his critics on the right he was irreconcilably opposed to the wars of hubris, was a tireless advocate of the rights of the sick, the needy, the poor and the exploited, and relentlessly reminded the rich and the powerful of their failings. He stood up against draconian communism, but did not fail to criticize the heartless capitalism for its exploitation of the weak.
All religions are in the throes of challenges posed by technology and demands of our times. The millennia old traditions of centuries are under pressure to change and adjust to the needs and aspirations of those deprived and marginalized particularly in the case of women. The doctrinal issues brought many disagreements among the Catholics. Although many disagreed with him, they did not feel animosity toward him because his sincerity was never in doubt, and they found no personal animus in the stands he took that appeared to go against the social and political winds.
There are theological differences at the core of my beliefs as a Muslim with that of Christianity. Yet on the level of our common humanity, I found myself in agreement with many of John Paul II’s social and political stands. He had the magnanimity of spirit to disagree with others theologically yet empathize with them and celebrate their humanity. He understood that religion without spirituality is reduced to rituals.
He wrote profusely and has been written about. His views were clearly expressed leaving no doubt of his position on the issues of the day. He lived with dignity, and at the end of his days, he brought dignity to the suffering from ailments. He passed away with grace and poise accepting the inevitability of death. He lived a purposeful life courageously and gracefully.
Religion and country are sacred and dear to most of us. When we support them uncritically with blind devotion, "my religion or my country right or wrong," we often end up defending the indefensible and demean what we love and hold sacred. When we aspire to live to the best our religion, and country has to offer, not only do we live a life worth living but honor and raise what we love to the truly sacred and beautiful. Karol Wojtyla, the Pope, understood this simple truth and lived it.