Saturday, April 02, 2005

The extraordinary ordinary: Terri and John Paul

The wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope's death continues. It's amazing to have had two such astonishing stories of life and death in the same week: first Terri Schiavo, now the Pope -- one the life and death of someone very much like us, which made her story all the more immediate, the other the life and death of one of the giant world-historical figures of our time, perhaps the last of his kind. There are many, many more Terri Schiavos out there, lest we forget, but we shall not soon see another figure like Pope John Paul II in a world increasingly dominated by transient celebrity and the mediocrity of the human, all-too-human. It was Terri Schiavo's very ordinariness, if I may put it that way, that made her story so poignant. We connected to her so intimately because, somehow, we knew her, and because we related, on a deeply personal level, to her plight. Despite his admirable humility, the Pope was not ordinary at all, though we connected to him, even those of us who aren't Catholic and who don't accept (or, rather, believe in) Catholicism's central teachings, precisely because of his extraordinary combination of character, conviction, humility, and humanity -- a combination that lifted him above the ordinary but which kept him so close to those of us who are merely ordinary. His was an extraordinariness dedicated to the ordinary. We could not know him the way we knew Terri Schiavo, but, in him, we saw, I think, a lofty vision of our own best selves, a life dedicated to the pain and suffering, but also to the highest hopes and aspirations, of all, Catholic or not. Whatever our differences with what he stood for, he was an antidote to the vulgarity of so much of modern life, a repository of love from which we can continue to draw inspiration, a bridge to the rest of humankind and all of God's creation, and a model for what is truly possible in the human spirit. In saying this, I know that I neglect what so many feel, which is a connection to God through their "second father" (to quote Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York), but I personally cannot speak to that and would not be so presumptuous as to do so. I speak rather of the human side of Pope John Paul II's faith and good works -- and that faith and those good works, both in the service of God and for the sake of us all, were nothing less than extraordinary.

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