April 3, 2005
BY THE TIME he came to Camden Yards in Baltimore on that sun-splashed autumn Sunday in 1995, Pope John Paul II had for more than a decade been encased in glass when he traveled among crowds. The "popemobile" circled the baseball field and turned along the warning track, and for a few memorable seconds, as a reporter free to roam in the grass of left field, I had my audience with the Vicar of Christ. He looked right at me - I swear, right into my eyes - and gave the papal blessing from behind bulletproof glass.
Equipped with a Sun-issued cell phone, I called my mother, the former Rose Popolo, and excitedly told her about it. She had prayed the rosary every day of her adult life, and she deserved to hear about this experience. Corny as it may seem, I figured it was as close as she would ever come to the pope.
Of course, popes were always remote and untouchable; in my childhood they were photographs on Catholic calendars.
But here was one who hungered to reach and touch his flock, who traveled more than any other pontiff.
And yet the cruelty of our time forced him to move about the globe inside a protective bubble.
The pope was encased in glass, of course, because someone had tried to kill him 14 years earlier. He had been shot in May 1981 as he entered St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. The would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a member of a Turkish terrorist organization known as the Gray Wolves. The pope survived the shooting, and he declared to the world that his survival was a miracle.
Agca went to prison in Rome. The pope resumed his busy life.
Then, when no one seemed to be paying particular attention, a couple of days after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul turned up at Agca's cell at Rebibbia Prison. He spent 21 minutes with the young man who had tried to kill him. He prayed for him. He called him "my brother." He gave him a silver rosary.
And he forgave him.
Agca stayed in prison; the pope did not suggest that he be released at the time. But he forgave him.
That was a seminal moment in a life of true Christian activism - the pope setting an example for all the world.
He was pope for 26 years, a little more than half my Roman Catholic lifetime. Each Catholic on Earth will take from this man's life a different lesson or savor a different message. Vatican watchers and theologians can argue over his most important contribution to mankind. I will take the moment of forgiveness of Agca as mine.
All these years I have found it remarkable, and I regard the photograph of Pope John Paul with Agca as one of the most powerful images of the 20th century.
I am not much for Christian doctrine, nor am I a patient reader of encyclicals. I believe Christ was a teacher and his most important lesson boils down to something like the Golden Rule. The gilded trappings of religious power amuse, intrigue and appall me. I am much happier with simple lessons - visit the sick, share your bread, love those who hate you - and the ideal of living what you believe. I frequently speak with other American Catholics who share these views, who feel disconnected from the Holy See and who are more inclined to take their Christian cues from those around us - the good people we know who teach our children, who run the shelters, who work with the illiterate, the addicted and the sick, who cook soup for the homeless - than we are from Catholic hierarchy.
But with his energy, his intellect, his command of languages, his willingness to travel and his resilience, Pope John Paul evoked the spirit of Christian activism that the world needed to see, and that the world needs.
His meeting with Agca - and his steadfast opposition to the death penalty - probably made many of his followers uncomfortable.
Forgive those who hate you? Have mercy for the killer? Look upon the wretched criminal and see a human being?
Awesome ideas made real when the pope went to prison.
I don't buy that forgiveness only makes the forgiver feel better. Pope John Paul's visit with Agca helped me see the pontiff as a man living what he believed. He was a teacher leaving a lesson for the ages - in just 21 minutes from 26 years of an extraordinarily busy papacy - that forgiveness trumps revenge, love conquers hate.
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