The other night I caught a few scenes from Whit Stillman's perfect movie Barcelona. In one of them our hero Ted is at his unconscious cousin Fred's hospital bedside. He wants to pray for Fred's recovery, but in his WASP self-consciousness first hints to the earnest Spanish girl in the room with him that she should leave. She misunderstands and instead kneels down next to him alongside Fred's bed. So he asks her if maybe she knows some Catholic prayers. Whereupon she shuts her eyes tight and buries her head over her clasped hands.
It's a wonderful moment, not least because the humor confirms the stereotype. Among the Christian religions only one is the genuine article and it's known as Roman Catholicism. It's an open secret, especially among non-believers. Reactions to the death of Pope John Paul II don't really allow for any other conclusion.
Only the other day our anti-religious zealots were ranting about America as a theocracy run by religious zealots and nuts. They couldn't wait for Terri Schiavo to disappear and to take Tom DeLay with her. Yet within hours of her death the dominant media shifted dramatically. John Paul II was on his deathbed, and well before 2:27 p.m. eastern time on Saturday the dominant media culture, which normally runs from religion like wild tribesmen from a voodoo curse, was canonizing this greatest imaginable Pope and leading the universal mourning. Vatican City became the center of the world, and no one could express anything other than deep sadness, grief, and a sense of irreplaceable loss.
True, Peter Jennings failed to anchor ABC's Saturday coverage. Perhaps he still felt shamed by his hopeful prediction that Terri Schiavo would be a one-day story. Despite its best intentions, the TV coverage couldn't let the mourners' tearful sorrow speak for itself. By nature television talks too much. Stopping to think would be more than its practitioners could bear.
But look at the newspapers -- bigger headlines than after Pearl Harbor. Huge spreads. Special sections. A five-page obituary in the New York Times alone, and it only scratched the surface. (But for the record, let it be noted that it describes the Pope's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, about Communism's fall, in terms rarely heard in liberal precincts: "It recognized superior dynamism in market economies over statist ones." On the other hand, like all the other coverage, it failed to react to recent revelations confirming the KGB's role in the 1981 assassination attempt.)
Attempts at bias seemed pathetic. PowerlineBlog.com caught one that spoke volumes. Sunday's lead story in the N.Y. Times opened by referring to John Paul's "extraordinary, if sometimes polarizing 26-year reign..." -- begging the question of how one can be extraordinary if polarizing. The McBriens and Drinans filled the airwaves. But so did Michael Novak and George Weigel. If there are losers, it is American liberal Catholics, who are utterly out of the mainstream John Paul carved out. The Times at one point did try to defend them. The special pleading was laughable. For instance, the Pope supposedly put an end to many post-Vatican II "innovations that had been gaining popularity in the United States." Such as? As one source told the Times, "priests saying Mass without using liturgical vestments, people advocating the use of sake and rice cakes instead of bread and wine."
We'll be hearing lots more along these lines in the coming days, amid the usual whining about celibacy, the nonordination of women, and the lack of condom distribution after mass. But it's all rather embarrassing amid the majesty of John Paul's spectacular life in the service of God, his people, and a 2,000-year-old institution. There are a billion good things that can be said about this Pope, just for starters. Already the post-death coverage, by focusing on all his days, is showing us images of John Paul in his healthy prime. But we should not forget how terribly ill and broken physically he was in his last years -- and how his force of will allowed him to function to the very end. Ponder that example. How small-minded and pointless do calls such as Newsweek's -- by a Roman Catholic Polish-American -- two summers ago for him to step down now appear.
Much more to my liking are reactions coming out now from Poland and elsewhere. We know Poland's story. Still, for all the lumps it's taken over the centuries, what other country has ever been blessed to produce someone like this? Better than most people, Poles know just how mysteriously God operates. I went to one of its leading secular voices, Adam Michnik's Gazeta Wyborcza, to gauge reactions. Among those it posted, two leaped out. There was former Czech president and famed dissident Vaclav Havel, commenting thus:
… I regarded the Pope as my wise and forbearing confessor. John Paul II died a martyr who showed us all that it's not only important to know how to accept one's death, but that no less important is it to fight for life to the final moment, because life is the greatest gift which has been given to us.
The great one-time Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed:
I have nothing to say other than what millions of people in the world are now thinking and feeling. No one's suffering and death has awakened in the world so many tears and so many good wishes as the suffering and death of Karol Wojtyla.
There hasn't been another person in history whose words were heard by so many people. We are grateful to him not only because, in our brutal and ruthless century, full of violence and greed, he changed the world for the better, but also because, if one is allowed to say this, he made us better people.
We listened to him and knew that whatever he was saying to us, whether he was citing the words of the Gospels or familiar injunctions, they weren't banal or abstract phrases, but words from his soul, authentically flowing from his faith, and that's why they moved us and provided spiritual nourishment.
When he repeated Christ's words, "Be not afraid," we knew that they were being spoken by a man who indeed is not afraid, is not afraid of anything, because he lives with a complete and total faith in God, because he believes that no matter what happens, it will bring with it some good, and that the suffering which fate brings and which spares no one we can through our thoughts turn into good, and thanks to him, I repeat, we are maybe a little better than we were.
Notice that neither Havel nor Kolakowski described himself as a believer or even practicing Catholic. But they knew the benefit that derived from having been led and protected by someone who did. The trick now will be to remain not afraid in his absence.