Page 1306 - Week 05 - Tuesday, 5 April 2005

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While endorsing all of those sentiments, I would just like to focus on a couple of aspects of JPII’s life and times which particularly stand out for me: the role of suffering in his life, and his great capacity to forgive. Karol Wojtyla was a man who suffered greatly in his life, and that has been said a bit today. And it was this suffering that helped shape him into the great man he became. He lost his mother at age 8, his brother at age 12, and the last remaining member of his immediate family, his father, at the age of 20.

He suffered under Nazi occupation, watching some of his Jewish friends taken away while, at great risk to himself, helping many other Jews to escape the Nazi death camps. He survived the Nazi occupation, only to face a new oppression, the evil of communism, where his freedom and the freedom of his countrymen and women were severely restricted.

I believe it was this life of hardship that gave JPII a great empathy and connection with people, especially oppressed people all over the world. It was this connection with people which made him such a widely loved and respected person—love and respect which have been starkly demonstrated through the amazing, worldwide interest and outpouring of grief over the past few days.

JPII’s connection with all types of people meant that he was admired at home and by world leaders and ordinary people alike. When meeting with people from oppressed nations, with the severely disabled, with missionaries, with dignitaries or with leaders of other religions, the pope was able to draw on his own difficult story to make a personal connection. And it was this personal connection that made him so widely loved.

While commentators have focused greatly on JPII’s contribution to the fall of communism, I believe one of his lasting contributions will be the way he conducted himself through the final years of his life. In a world where death and dying are sanitised, the Holy Father openly displayed his human frailty. Struck down with severe arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, he continued his ministry, though with increasing difficulty and discomfort. For a man who had consistently defended the value of every human life, no matter how young, old or frail, publicly battling on through his suffering was his way of demonstrating that the sick and the frail do have value. It was the ultimate way of practising what he had long preached.

The other thing that strikes me about JPII was his capacity for forgiveness. While listening to news reports on the weekend about the pope’s worsening condition, one story that stood out for me was that of Mehmet Ali Agca who, like many others around the world, was said to be praying for the pope in his final hours. And the reason that the story struck me was that this was the same man who had attempted to assassinate the pontiff in 1981. It seems that the change of heart was brought about by the pope’s visiting Agca in prison and forgiving him for his attempted murder. Not surprisingly, this had a profound effect on the young man.

This speaks to me of an authenticity that is all too rare in leaders. It is one thing to preach forgiveness and love; it is altogether something else to genuinely forgive someone who tries to kill you. To me, this will be his most enduring legacy: he was that rare person who managed to genuinely practise the forgiveness that he preached.

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