Like most everyone else, I suppose, I was pretty taken by the pomp and formality of last week’s ceremonies in Vatican City. We do not often see the pageantry of a papal funeral. Last time, in 1978, I was in seminary. Pope John Paul (as he was called then) had succeeded Pope Paul VI in August. He sat in St. Peter’s chair for all of thirty-three days before he up and died. John Paul was not an old man by any means, and I remember there being lots of rumors that he was poisoned or otherwise murdered, perhaps for fear he was too “liberal” on such matters as contraception in developing countries, or too honest in the face of alleged institutional corruption at the Vatican Bank. (See, The Godfather, III)
For my part, I was just sad. He seemed a genuine and genuinely funny man, always smiling and self-deprecating, too. Upon his election, he is said to have blessed the College of Cardinals with these words, “May God forgive you what you have done on my behalf.” A day or two before his death he told a small boy, a young pilgrim, that when he was little he had always had trouble with math. You gotta love that in a pope.
Within about a month we saw two papal funerals—one Paul VI and one for John Paul—but that was long years ago. John Paul II, elected in the “year of three popes,” was the only pope many of the world’s Catholics, or lots of others, had ever known.
They laid John Paul II in all his finery, for all the world to see. He had on the gold miter, the red outer robes, the white inner robes. He had on red socks and stiff shoes, He lay a bit crooked, his head cocked slightly to the side (arthritis and Parkinsons had made a lasting impression on him). Still, he was recognizable. No doubt who that was.
As I watched the unending lines of people pass him by, as I watched dignitaries kneel near his body, I thought to myself that it is an easy thing to recognize a dead pope. The evidence is obvious—the clothes, the hat, the Swiss Guard. Dead popes are easy to spot, and even for non-Catholics. Even for strangers.
Harder to identify is the living Christ, who is so much among his poor, suffering children that he is not always recognized—even by those who claim him. “Lord, when did we see you?” “You saw me in the hungry, the helpless, the suffering,” Jesus says.
One might only wish we and the world were as eager to find and follow the living Christ as we obviously are to gaze at the dead Vicar. God rest his soul; and God stir ours.