In the days before the Holy Father died, while my children and I were holding a strange twenty-first century vigil in front of cable news, my toddler flitted in and out of the room asking, “Did our hope die? Did he die yet?”
Katie speaks beautifully, in clear complete sentences that defy her age. It is so unusual for her to substitute one sound for another that I could not help but wonder if God were asking me to take a good, long look at my feelings in the hours before the death of Il Papa. With his death, would my hope die? Would my joy?
I was twelve when the handsome, brilliant Karol Wojtyla was named pope. I am not a baby boomer. I am blessed to be of what my friends and I call the JPII generation. In the wake of confusion over Vatican Council II, we were all poorly catechized in parish CCD programs. As young teenagers, we were looking for absolutes. And we found them in the pastoral leadership of a fatherly pope. He was everything a teenager yearns for: a man who held us to a higher standard in things, a man who didn’t waver in his valor and his relentless embodiment of goodness. He reminded us, again and again as we came of age, that we were called by God. By his example and through his teaching, young women of the JPII generation embraced their vocations.
First, we were students. He told us to “Hold school in esteem! Return to it joyfully; consider it a great gift, a fundamental right which, of course, also involves duties.” We were encouraged by our Papa to study hard, to learn well those academic lessons which would be so necessary to our formation. But we were also encouraged to a higher moral standard in those teenage years. In his teaching on the body, we came to understand the inseparable bond between love and responsibility. Every Wednesday, for the first five years of his pontificate indeed, the entire time I was in high school he told us about the great gift of sex, the beauty of our bodies and the deep interior joy that came with understanding and living the theology of the body. It wasn’t a simple, “just say ‘no.’” This wise Papa knew that we were eager to embrace a greater good than the message of our popular culture, and he showed us the beauty of the gospel message on sexuality.
During our college years, over the cacophonous din of feminist voices on college campuses, he again reminded us of vocation. True joy, true fulfillment could not be obstructed by a glass ceiling, because true joy could only be found when we connected with heaven’s design for us as women. Our Papa spoke to us about the dignity and vocation of women. Even in the workplace, we were called to be feminine. And with his encouragement, we heard our Lord calling us, hearts and souls, to marriage and motherhood. In Denver, he appealed to us to “rediscover the wealth of wisdom, the integrity of conscience and the deep interior joy which flow from respect for human sexuality understood as a great gift from God and lived according to the truth of the body’s nuptial meaning.” And we applauded, oh, how we applauded! This, this beautiful, joyful life of hope is the life we wanted!
We married and we had children. Our Papa smiled on us and he taught us how to truly give of ourselves in marriage. During my vigil in front of the television, so often I heard the pundits wonder if the Church would finally modernize its thought on contraception. Oh no, to do so would rob the faithful of the greatest joys of marriage as intended by God Himself. The Church’s teaching on contraception, far from shackling us, liberates us. It is truth. Our Papa has taught that we don’t change our minds about truth we embrace its timelessness.
In marital union God is there, ever fruitful, giving of Himself. And so too, are husband and wife. Together, we are three, united as one. We are living vocation oneness and calling in the truest sense of the world. Contraception distorts and destroys God’s gift and His expression of marital love. Our Papa wanted so much more for us in our marriages than the popular notion of sex.
And when that love is blessed with the great gift of children, the Pope of the Children tells us again and again to rejoice. In his Letter to Children, this gentle man whom so many children consider their grandfather, wrote, “It is true that a child represents the joy not only of its parents, but also the joy of the Church and the whole of society.” As young mothers, we found ourselves looking to our Papa for direction and consolation. We were discovering that life is hard and that there is much sadness along the path of joy. He was aging now and as he aged, he suffered. We were aging too and as adults in full bloom, we learned about suffering. Some of us suffered serious illness, some the illness and the loss of a child, some the cross of a child’s disability, some early widowhood. Our Papa taught us to suffer joyfully, content in the knowledge that we were fulfilling our vocation. We learned that we could not be Christians without carrying a cross. He showed us how to carry it gracefully.
And as the bloom of our youth began to fade and our childbearing years drew to an end, we looked ahead to the rest of our lives. And suddenly, we were faced with the recognition that he would not be there. He would not shepherd us himself through the next phase of living. Watching him die, we wondered with Katie, if our hope, our joy, was dying too. But in those final hours, during that vigil, he taught us what we needed to know for rest of journey.
He taught us that even as we age, as our beauty fades and our bodies become stooped and slow, we still have a mission. First, he echoed the first words of his pontificate. He told us not to fear. Instead, he said, “I am happy and you should be happy too. Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy.” He reminded us, while he suffered joyfully, that we should live our lives ever mindful of our deaths, that we should live in such a way that when the hour of death arrives, it will be a happy one. But he also told us that as we confront the inevitable sad times in our lives, we should pray together with joy. We are charged by our Papa in his last breaths, to join together in joyful prayer, indeed to make our entire lives a joyful prayer. We are given by him a final message of hope.
Then, a few hours later, he said something else. The Vatican spokesman said aides had told the pope that thousands of young people were in St. Peter's Square on Friday evening. “In fact, he seemed to be referring to them when, in his words, and repeated several times, he seemed to have said the following sentence: 'I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you,'” the spokesman said.
Of course young people filled the square! They wanted to tell him they loved him, they wanted to know what to do next, and even the very youngest of them wanted to know if the hope had died. It most certainly had not. With these precious words, he has told all of us who have reached out to children, all of us who have taken children to our homes and to our breasts, that we have answered an extraordinary call. We have looked for them. We have told them the good news. And, with the example of our Papa before us, we will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. We will try to do for them what he did for us. And, on our last days on earth, we will see them gathered and know their strength. We will know that we answered our calling because we will know that they know God.
Finally, our dear Papa said “Amen.” With “Amen” so be it he echoed the fiat of the Blessed Mother which began our Christian journey. With “Amen,” he told us one last time that our lives are to be ordered by God. We are to answer the call. We are to say as she did and as he did, “let it be done to me according to Thy word.” If the Blessed Mother can carry and raise the Savior of the World and if Karol Wjotyla can be supreme Pontiff for 26 years in this time of worldly despair, then certainly, we can joyfully, hopefully, answer our calls in our small corners of the world. In my home, “Amen” is the first word a child prays. For our Papa, all of life was a prayer. It is only fitting that it should end with Amen.
© Copyright 2005 Elizabeth Foss
Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at www.4reallearning.com.