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Keeler: Remembering Pope John Paul II, a good man who polarized the church

Poland nuns buy portraits of late Pope Pope

Poland nuns buy portraits of late Pope Pope John Paul II, in a shop near St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Friday, April 25, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Emilio Morenatti

This article was first printed on April 3, 2005, after the death of Pope John Paul II.

Through good popes and bad, the Crusades and the Inquisition, the pogroms and the sex scandals, and all the other failings of an institution that has shown itself to be all too human, we Catholics cling stubbornly to the belief that the Holy Spirit is really in charge.

Some of my friends see that as folly. I see it as logical. In fact, I view it, as I view so much else, in terms of baseball. It has to be a great game, I have always insisted, to survive the knaves who run it and the jerks who play it.

Similarly, I argue, the church must have divine strength to have survived so many imperfect humans at so many levels. No serious student of church history would deny that the church has suffered more than its share of knaves: from popes down to parish priests, not to mention a vast array of nasty lay folks.

People who call themselves Catholic have so badly misread the Gospel that they have seen it as everything from a prescription for acquiring wealth to permission for tormenting the same Jewish people from whom Jesus of Nazareth arose.

But we believe that, in the great sweep of history, the wisdom of the Spirit will prevail over the folly of homo sapiens.

The trick is to figure out what the Spirit is up to.

That's what I'm thinking, among many other things, now that Pope John Paul II has finished his race and claimed his prize. In the case of some past popes, it would be difficult to discern what the Spirit had in mind. But with John Paul, it seems so much easier.

In my bones, I deeply believe that the Spirit led this man to the Chair of Peter for a purpose, and I feel his breathtaking achievements in Jewish-Christian relations must be accounted as central to that purpose. And surely his role in the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the fall of communism can be seen as almost as important.

Of course, other Catholics, while agreeing on those two landmarks of his papacy, would insist that his real importance was in bringing back orthodoxy to a church gone astray.

That was one of the hallmarks of John Paul: He did not inspire neutrality or indifference. In the circles that I have traveled since his election in 1978, as an average Catholic and as a reporter covering the church, I've witnessed a dizzying variety of reactions to him.

One of my favorites, early in his papacy, was a comment from a non-Catholic colleague clearly taken by John Paul's vigor and his way with crowds: "Your pope sure knows how to pope." In the latter years of his pontificate, during a discussion of the pope's attitude toward women, a nun of my acquaintance said: "What we need are some healthy funerals."

Though he wrote and spoke eloquently of the dignity of women, there are a lot of women in the church who didn't see him as their friend.

Over the years, I have written many thousands of words - in this paper and in a book about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land - about this amazing, complicated man. But his very complexity has made it difficult for me to answer the simple question: "So, what do you think of this pope?"

This is my last chance to try.

On a deep level, I have come to love him: for his astonishing biography; his fidelity to the Gospel; his embrace of his own suffering, as a witness; his awesome productivity as a writer, his stunning giftedness in so many areas.

I have selfishly dreaded the crowds and the tight security that accompany covering his travels. But being around him has given me moments that I can never forget: sitting with Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv, to watch them watching him speak eloquent words about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, or sitting contemplatively next to the Sea of Galilee at the end of an exhausting day of covering his Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes, or watching the wind whip his hair at a site in Jordan thought to be the place where Jesus submitted himself to baptism by John the Baptist.

Now he is gone, and it is time for the church to decide what comes next.

The conclaves that elect new popes have been known to pick someone very different from the one who has just died.John Paul is a perfect example. His predecessor, the smiling and amiable Pope John Paul I, lasted only a month under the crushing burdens of this office. So the College of Cardinals was looking around for someone with a stronger constitution, among other qualities, and that's exactly what they got in John Paul II.

As the electors gather in the Sistine Chapel in less than three weeks to elect the next pope, they will be making human judgments about who should follow this towering man and how he should be different from John Paul. Human wisdom would say that the next pope can't be very different from John Paul, because he chose 97 percent of the men who will pick his successor. But human wisdom won't be the only factor.

Over the coming days, Catholics all over the world will be praying not only for John Paul, but for the College of Cardinals and for the man they are preparing to choose.

My own prayer is that the Spirit gives us someone to take us beyond the divisions that split the church today. By his own strength - and his inflexibility - John Paul helped polarize the church. The new pope will need to find ways of healing some of those wounds in the years ahead.

It would also be inspiring to have a pope who deeply understands the suffering of the poor in Latin America. John Paul spoke out eloquently for the poor, but he did not have the same existential feel for the day-to-day life of campesinos as he did for the suffering of the people of Poland. We've had a Slav pope. Now it would be wonderful to have a pope from Latin America, or one who has experienced apartheid in South Africa, or one who has learned to live in a nation where Islam dominates.

It would also be useful to have a pope who makes servant leadership and fidelity to the core of the Gospel more vital in the selection of bishops than obedience on a small list of issues, including the ordination of women. In fact, it wouldn't hurt if the new pope moved back to an earlier church tradition of election of bishops locally - reserving to himself final approval, but caring deeply about the need to have bishops rise from among their people.

Finding a successor for John Paul won't be easy. But the good news is that the cardinals won't be alone in that chapel.

Bob Keeler covered religion for Newsday for eight years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his portrait of the St. Brigid's parish in Westbury.