The Listening Pope
Fr Malcolm McMahon’s sermon on the death of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
October in 2001 was a special month for me because I spent most of those weeks in the presence of the Holy Father. I saw him virtually every day at the Synod of Bishops at which I was privileged to represent the Bishops of England and Wales. John Paul was in good form despite his Parkinson’s disease that was beginning to get a hold of him. He led us in prayer every day, and he held special prayers at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. He alertly followed the proceedings of every session and often waited around for a few minutes at the morning break to talk to the bishops. He liked being with his brother bishops, that was evident. More often than not while we were having coffee he was giving an audience to a head of state or some other important person. At the banquet he hosted at the end of the synod he sang for us.
The interesting thing for me was that during the synod he listened and he prayed. We often think of him as a sophisticated philosopher, a great preacher, a prodigious writer of encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, sermons and addresses. And that would not be wrong because he saw his Petrine Ministry in terms of being a teacher of the Faith that had been handed down to him. But he was a man of prayer and he was also a listener.
When I saw him again at the Ad Limina visit in October 2003 I was fortunate to have a private audience with him. His health had visibly failed in the intervening two years. He was tired and appeared worn down by his infirmity and not all the bishops from England and Wales were able to see him. Yet he was still sticking to a very busy schedule. In the two weeks we were in Rome, as well as seeing us and many other more important people in audience, he celebrated his silver jubilee as Pope, beatified Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, and made a clutch of new cardinals. He didn’t show any signs of slowing up at all. But in the fifteen minutes I had with him once again I found the quiet, recollected, listening pastor.
He heard what I had to say and then asked me two questions: one was about Leicester that he heard was likely to be the first Asian-majority city in England. Was this a problem or an opportunity? I replied that we were blessed by excellent inter-faith relations, that the Catholic Asian community principally from Goa and the Philippines had been a great strength to us, and I assured him that our brothers and sisters from other cultures enriched our society and our church. Then he changed tack. He asked me, ‘What are the young people of the diocese doing about evangelisation?’ I found that question challenging and a gift. I like to think that that is John Paul’s legacy to the Diocese of Nottingham. It is a gift because it makes us all, young or old, think deeply about our commitment to evangelisation; and it is a challenge because it shows how much John Paul understood young people and the way in which they above all others can convey the spirit and message of Jesus Christ to each other.
Evangelisation was close to John Paul’s heart. He it was who called for a new evangelisation and he it was who announced a decade of evangelisation. He saw evangelisation as being about the life of the Church in its four ways of being: announcing the good news of the Gospel, worshipping God, being a fellowship and being of service to each other and the world in which we find ourselves. The first of these is most usually associated with a popular understanding of evangelisation: announcing the good news of Jesus to unbelievers.
But beyond this first proclamation John Paul understood that at the heart of the church is communion and it is a Church called to together by proclamation of the Word that celebrates its communion in the worship of God and service of his people. Making the Gospel present in the world involves all these aspects of being the Church. But that understanding of evangelisation can be rightly criticised for being inward looking unless we consider how we relate to the world. And this brings us to another aspect of his teaching about evangelisation. He saw that when the Word of God engages with the world then certain principles must be observed to preserve the integrity of the Gospel. He saw evangelisation as a means of supporting the dignity of every human being; that evangelisation was about engaging in dialogue with other cultures so that what was good in them could be recognised and even appropriated by us; and furthermore evangelisation was seen as the way in which the Church upheld moral values in a world that sometimes seemed to be losing its way.
Our listening, thoughtful Pope cracked open the idea of evangelisation so that we could understand what it meant for Christians to engage in a meaningful way with the modern world.
John Paul announced day in and day out the good news of the Resurrection of Jesus. He showed us how the Word of God can engage with the cares and concerns of humanity to offer the hope of the Resurrection. He did this with his life, his dying and his death. Millions of people flocked to Rome to pay their last respects to Pope John Paul. His influence will undoubtedly go on because he saw that the only way forward for mankind had to be based on respect for the dignity of every human being. Only this would preserve peace, protect the innocent from conception until death, guarantee freedom of thought and expression, relieve poverty and fight disease.
This breadth of vision grew out of the hardship of his youth where many of these things were only dreams to be achieved. But for John Paul and for us they are not simply human desires or idle wishes that may or may not come true, they are rooted in the Gospel. John Paul taught that Christian hope is certainty in a future in which humanity will find its unity and fulfilment in Jesus Christ alone.
We will miss John Paul for the depth of his insight and the hope that he conveyed to us through his teaching, but we will also miss him as a Father. And for most of us that is the overriding feeling that we have experienced these last days. He prayed everyday for us to his Father in Heaven.
But this sense of deep loss and feeling orphaned should give way to a strong feeling of hope. John Paul embraced death like every good Christian — with a sense of longing for our heavenly home; with a deep desire to be with the Lord he loved and served with a firm hope that he would see God.
Thank God for John Paul, Pastor and Teacher, listener and man of prayer.
May he rest in peace.