Sadly, it’s rare for a church leader, or for the leaders of most of our dominant institutions, to demonstrate a spirituality that attracts millions of people around the world - particularly many young people. But the scene of millions lining up to pass by the body of John Paul II and attend his funeral in Rome in early April was remarkable indeed. The enormous attraction to this pope goes far beyond the circle of those who agree with all the positions of the Catholic Church or even all of the decisions of his papacy.
The ecumenical and interfaith attraction to John Paul II reflects his own practice of reaching out to more people in more faith traditions than any pope ever has. He was the first pope (since Peter, it was noted) to visit a synagogue and the first to visit a mosque. His March 2000 trip to Israel, with its moving visit to the Western Wall and the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, said more against anti-Semitism than all the words he spoke. It changed the relationship of the church and Judaism.
As I watched the nonstop coverage of the pope’s death, I was struck by how many people - especially political leaders - wanted to claim the pontiff as their own, as someone who affirmed their causes and commitments. At the same time, they ignored the other things this pope said and did that directly challenge their own political decisions.
One of the great attractions of Pope John Paul II’s spirituality was his consistency. At the core of Catholic social teaching is the idea of a "consistent ethic of life," an ethic that seeks to protect and defend human life and dignity wherever and whenever they are threatened, and which challenges the selective moralities of both the political left and right.