In 1978, a Polish cardinal was elected to the highest position in the Catholic Church, the first non-Italian pope in over four centuries. Upon his ascension, Karol Wojtyla announced that he would be taking the name 'John Paul II' in remembrance of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who led the church for little more than one month.
Last Saturday, Pope John Paul II died after a 27-year pontificate that spanned visits to over a hundred countries, meetings with countless world leaders and ordinary Christians, and doctrines that moved the Catholic Church into the modern era while still retaining its most traditional practices.
The media, in its reflections on Pope John Paul II, has referred to his papacy as a study in revolutionary conservatism: On the one hand, he took hard-line stances on some of the most controversial church-related issues - condemning abortion and homosexuality, and denying any possibility of ordaining women as part of the clergy. On the other hand, he was a charismatic diplomat - waving to massive cheering crowds in some of the unlikeliest corners of the world, whispering a prayer at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and speaking at a Syrian mosque, apologizing for the Vatican's silence at the murder of millions of Jews in World War II.
Yet, beyond that, the former Karol Wojtyla was remarkably human. He played soccer. He acted in a small theater. He loved skiing. He had a method of talking to people that was so disarming that few could help but like and respect him. He took two bullets from an assassin's gun, with one embedding itself in his abdomen and the other shattering one of his fingers. He said hello to the world from his hospital bed. He met with his would-be assassin and gave the man his forgiveness.
He fought Communism with words and gestures. He walked with a limp. He visited the United States and Cuba, and treated Fidel Castro and George Bush much the same way. He had a fantastic memory for people. He had an almost innate knowledge for when things were getting monotonous, and would invariably have the perfect quip in mind for such occasions. He was the kind of person who felt as though he should stop and talk to you, schedule be damned. And until one cold Easter Sunday in 2005, he addressed the loving crowds before him for every prominent religious ceremony of every year.
Pope John Paul II - or Karol Wojtyla, however you may think of him - was a rare man. He was the kind of man that few people are lucky enough to run across. And bless his soul, he made himself as available to each and every one of us as much as possible.
Ecclesiates 3:4 tells us that there is a time to laugh, and a time to weep. That there is a time to dance, and a time to mourn.
This is a time to mourn.