April 04, 2005 | Graham

Real presence

My first reaction when the ABC morning broadcast said that the death of Pope John Paul was the day’s leading news item was – maybe for the world’s Catholics, but there’ll be something else for the rest of us.
I’ve revised my view as the days have progressed. Karol Wojtyla made a real impression not just on Catholics, or on “Christendom” (a term John Howard anachronistically used this morning to describe the community of all Christians), but on Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.
Why is this so? Partly I think it has to do with his political activities. World leaders opposed to communism saw the Pope as an ally, even when he didn’t always approve of their own policies. So there is a bond, for example, between him and George Bush. And by taking a strong political position he also broke from the supine 20th Century history of the Catholic Church which has too often failed to stand up to oppression, or worse, been complicit in it.
In a relativist world he also stood for the proposition that some truths are absolute. Even when you didn’t agree with his position on abortion or contraception or ordination, you had to admire his adherence to views because his gauge of truth was rightness rather than popularity. That could explain his resonance not just with Protestants, traditional denominational enemies to the Roman Church, but with leaders and followers of other religions.
He was also recognised for his acknowledgement of other Christian denominations and religions, being the first pontiff to visit a mosque or a synagogue – quite a step forward for a church that still teaches that those of us out of communion with it will suffer eternal torment in hell.
But none of these is sufficient to explain the way his death has affected so many so widely and so profoundly.
I think the answer lies in deep common human psychological needs and what is an almost mystical melding in his life and death of the real and the symbolic that I can only explain as a sort of incarnation.
When Princess Diana died I felt shut out from the communal grief. This was an experience that I shared with many of my male friends – tears and and Diana appeared to be a girl thing. Here was this woman whose only claim on our attention was the celebrity that she had won by marrying into the Windsors. She was pretty enough, but without the “coronet” no head-turner, and wayward and weak – what one might call “scatty”. I suspect that the female grief I saw around me was for the death of the illusion that any girl could win the lottery of life and become a princess, rather than any grief for the loss of her personality.
Wojtyla is different. He was a man of substance who through the agency of the Catholic Church lived a life as a symbol as well as a man. What I think we are seeing now is a worldwide response to that fusion. He was a man who one can admire both for who he was and what he represented, and this fusion has become almost supernatural, particularly in its effect.
Coming so close on Easter it opens a new window of understanding for me on the death, resurrection and the nature of the humanity and claim to divinity of Jesus Christ. When the creed says that God was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, is it this phenomenon of melding that it is referring to. Is our reaction to Wojtyla’s death an experience of God in creation, and in some ways a post-figuration of the more profound expression of that incarnation that those of us who are Christian celebrated a week ago?

Posted by Graham at 9:32 am | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Religion


  1. Nicely put, I guess many people feel a need to look up to a symbol.
    However, I find myself isolated in questioning his achievements. Was he not the man who suppressed the liberation theologists in Central America? Did he not preside over a church that hid sexual predation by priests, systemtically, in many countries? And hasn’t the ‘absolute’ ban on ‘artifical’ birth control contributed to great suffering?
    To me, the Catholic Church is a symbol not of spirit transcending oppression, but raw and anachronistic power.

    Comment by karin — April 4, 2005 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Having lived four years in catholic orphanages I totally concer with Karin’s views on the pope. I believe the whole system of the catholic church is one big business where the pope resided as the CEO, shutting his eyes to the pain and suffering inflicted on thousands and thousands of children under his protection. I wondered how many souls from the institutions meet him at the gates of heaven!

    Comment by Mary Walsh — April 4, 2005 @ 3:44 pm

  3. That’s the most interesting thing – that while so many have complaints about the Catholic Church, and about the Pope, the reaction to his death has been overwhelmingly sympathetic.

    Comment by Graham Young — April 4, 2005 @ 5:59 pm

  4. That the death of a public figure, significant at a global level, has been met sympathetically in the media and by world leaders is not at all surprising. Media organizations would risk ostracizing not simply large communities of Catholics by criticising the recently deceased Pope but would also risk offending the broader community who may place value in the long held creed that it is in poor taste to talk ill of the dead. So to, why would a political leader risk offending any section of their constituency by making critical remarks about a deceased religious leader? It would be silly and pointless. If leaders hold views contradictory to the Pontiff then they need only speak those views from the legitimacy of their own position and not use a death in the Roman Catholic Church to forward them. While the sympathy offered by the media and world leaders upon the death of the Pope may well be genuine on the part of some, it is no doubt simply a matter of commercial and public relations logic on the part of many. While this logic may well reflect the sentiment of many people in the world – I too have seen the tears of a few interviewees on television news broadcasts – it is also likely to have no relevance or relation at all to the way that many other people in the world truthfully experience this death. It is for this reason that analysts must take care when attempting to extrapolate the mood of a populace from the statements of leaders and understandable but predictable media coverage.

    Comment by Shelly Savage — April 5, 2005 @ 10:57 am

  5. “In a relativist world he also stood for the proposition that some truths are absolute. Even when you didn’t agree with his position on abortion or contraception or ordination, you had to admire his adherence to views because his gauge of truth was rightness rather than popularity.”
    Graham, I don’t think this is a positive thing, sticking to your views because of their rightness to oneself. That is not why I hold views, because I don’t believe that an absolute moral and ethical system is possible in oneself. That is not to say I am a relativist in the ethics of the wider community though. But I think that you’re saying that by ignoring some views of the wider community and instead sticking to his own is admirable. Regradless of anyone’s particular views, this is antisocial behaivor, pope or not. There is an interesting section of the Burra charter which deals with exactly the same point, it is logical, but not ‘common sense’ or the way most humans operate. Except for you, who allows a flowering of diverse opinion on this marvellous website.
    All catholics I know well have been praying for the Pope’s death for over a decade. Personally for me all he ever did was a funny looking hand waving gesture in front of his chest. He looked pathetic as his health deteriorated and to me was a figure not of sympathy, but of disgust. If anybody deserves the sympathy of the catholics that I know, it is Mark Latham.

    Comment by Benno — April 5, 2005 @ 5:29 pm

  6. Benno,
    What I’m actually saying is that it is unusual these days for people to believe that there are some truths which stay true, no matter what people think individually, or what circumstances they find themselves in. I think it’s sad that there are people who claim to be Christian who prayed for someone’s death.

    Comment by Graham Young — April 10, 2005 @ 11:48 pm

  7. The moral vacuum that many of us exist in will never be solved if we seek a scientific or democratic basis for what Pope JPII called the culture of life.
    To paint the Pope as pathetic & a vision of disgust makes me worry about how some people would view not only the crucified Christ, but, more contemporary earthly realities such as disabled, disfigured and incapacitated fellow humans.
    These are the same people who probably blame the negative outcomes of the lack of contraception & condoms on moral teachings, rather than uncontrolled and ill advised sexual behaviour of individuals.

    Comment by James — April 11, 2005 @ 1:29 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.