This afternoon, my husband and I drove to a local restaurant to celebrate my stepfather's 90th birthday, which was yesterday. We had a wonderful time, and around 2:30 we started drifting out of the restaurant on our way home. As Jim and I left the restaurant, one of my brothers, on his way out of the parking lot, rolled down his window and said, "Turn on the radio when you get into the car -- the Pope just died."
This particular Pope is very special to me because he was Polish, and my stepfather (who's really the only father I've ever known -- mine died when I was two, and my mother remarried when I was three) is also Polish; his mother was a Polish farmgirl from the Lodz area, and his father came from a rather more cultured family in, I believe, Krakow, the Pope's hometown. My grandmother used to refer to him as her "boyfriend," and kept a large portrait of him -- maybe 24" x 48" -- in a place of honor on her wall. She was so thrilled when he was elected. Although I left the Catholic Church right around the time he was elected, I always felt that he was a "good" Pope, in the sense that it was obvious he truly cared for his Church and for his vocation as its temporal leader. It was never about power for him. I felt bad for him because it must have become obvious to him, as the years went on, that he would never be able to undo the damage caused by Paul VI; but he had to keep trying. Now he can rest from his labors.
My husband and I were just speculating about the next Pope, where he might be from and what direction he might take, and I realized: Religiously, it's not going to affect me. For the first time in my life, the election of a Pope will have no direct affect on me. Will the new Pope choose to admit women to the priesthood, or reinstate liberation theology (Marxism in a cassock)? Or will he affirm the policies of John Paul II and continue to try to stem the liturgical abuses that have eviscerated Catholicism? I don't know, and I almost don't care, except that whichever direction he takes will affect everyone in the world -- that's the nature of being the leader of a large body of human beings. Whichever direction he chooses, he's bound to annoy somebody; somebody, somewhere, will declare that "this is the final nail in the coffin of the Catholic Church." What a very great shame, how sad, that people who are depending on this man to be their shepherd will continue to be buffeted about spiritually, just when and where they are at their most vulnerable. For their sakes, I do care.
Meanwhile, on a much more personal level, I'm dealing with the dichotomy between life and death: The 90th birthday party of one old Polak, and the death of another Polak five years his junior (John Paul II would have turned 85 this year). The old Polish song, "Sto lat," "May you live to be 100 years," keeps drifting through my head. It was sung so often for the Pope. It's sung at every Polish celebration, and I heard it many times, growing up. Sto lat, Francziszek Swienty (not my maiden name, but close); may your memory be eternal, Karol Wojtyla -- our Polish Pope.