What meaningful eulogy can a rabbi possibly add to the many heartfelt tributes being paid to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II?
Ancient Jewish wisdom advised that in this world a man is known by his father. Not only a man's last name but much of his identity comes from his father. However, after the process of death transforms us to spirit, we look to our children and grandchildren for clues to our eternity. In the future world of the spirit where all is light and truth, Judaism teaches that each of us will be known by the actions of his or her children.
But children are not the only building blocks people leave behind. In the world to come we will be known by all our lasting accomplishments, including worthy children and powerful ideas.
Pope John Paul II is even now being warmly greeted in heaven as the father of a billion worthy children and the progenitor of one powerful idea.
We can condense the vast repertoire of courage and compassion, the dazzling virtuosity exhibited over decades by Pope John Paul II into one idea. This idea is so powerful that it welded the many facets of his life into one brilliant beam of clarity.
The Pope's singular coherence was the sanctity of life. His beam of clarity was the triumph of life over death. Terri Schiavo, clinging to life, alerted all Americans to the real distinction between the culture of death and that of life. Perhaps her final role was to herald on high, the imminent arrival of Karol Wojtyla.
For a quarter century, three ways in which the sanctity of life played the central part in the Pope's world view have inspired me.
The first was his fight against communism. Indeed, his role in its overthrow was enormous. Why did he hate communism? Not only because he witnessed its evil but also because it violated his reverence for life. Communism is by definition the doctrine of materialism. If there is any difference at all between matter and spirit, it is that matter is mortal whereas spirit is eternal. Communism's innate mortality springs from its exclusive emphasis on matter. Freedom is a matter of spirit and is eternal. By fighting communism all his life the Pope was making a courageous commitment to freedom's spiritual underpinning--life.
Another example of this pope's commitment to life was his lifelong opposition to abortion and euthanasia. He fervently believed that in no way was man to jeopardize the sacred gift of life; neither at its beginning nor at its end. Even the creation of life transforms a man and a woman into holy partners of God, thus contraception becomes a grave moral issue.
The third example was his unequivocal opposition to homosexuality, in spite of the many vulgar attacks it earned him. It was clear to all fair-minded people that his opposition to the act of homosexuality never involved hatred for any human being. Instead it expressed his uncompromising love of life.
I feel that John Paul II recognized that when a man and his wife express their physical passion for one another, they are engaging in a life-affirming act. The Creator even hinted at this by ensuring that the organ of intercourse is none other than the birth canal. By contrast, in the practice that the Pope condemned, the organ involved is essentially a death canal. It is the part of the human anatomy designed expressly for ridding the human body of dead cells and other waste that possesses no further life-giving potential. Unlike animal product, human manure has so little life left in it that it is virtually useless as agricultural fertilizer. Opposing homosexuality is part of fighting the culture of death.
On these matters and on many more, Pope John Paul II aroused controversy. However his views were never capricious; they were unified by the theme of life. He was utterly consistent in his unwavering defense of the culture of life. Did I personally agree with every single one of his papal positions? Of course not; he was the pope and I am a rabbi. Theologically and practically he did not speak for me. However that is not the issue. The issue is that he made the world a better place for all who love life and for all who revere the words in Deuteronomy, "...therefore choose life."
Without Pope John Paul II the culture of death would have made far greater inroads. An airliner remains aloft only because jet engines convert fuel into thrust. In the absence of that energy, gravity alone would doom the airplane. Similarly, in the absence of the spiritual life force such as that which Pope John Paul II injected into the world every day of his life, the gravitational pull of death would surely have spread even more widely. Whatever your faith, that is reason enough for gratitude.
Radio and television show host Rabbi Daniel Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, a bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation's survival.
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