Vespers homily by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in commeration of Pope John Paul II

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My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for coming here this evening to commemorate the life of Pope John Paul II.

We have gathered to pray for the repose of his soul. We pray that God will welcome this, his servant, into the communion of eternal life with Him.

And we have also come to thank God for the extraordinary gift that Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, has been for the Church and for the world.

So many tributes have been paid to him these last days that it seems futile to try to add to them. He was, unquestionably, one of the great Christian figures of our time, whose close relationship with God shone always through the extraordinary witness to truth and to hope. That witness he gave in the midst of our age’s greatest horrors and challenges. This was an epic papacy, which shall be remembered, always, for the remarkable strength of character and persistence with which Pope John Paul proclaimed the values of the Kingdom of God.

It is a great testament to the power of that witness that so many of this nation’s leaders are here today to pay tribute to him, and to add their thanks to that of the millions who in these past days have assembled across the globe in respectful silence.

Indeed, dear brothers and sisters, the response of so many millions, of all faiths and none, of different races and ages, to the passing of the Polish Pope has been simply overwhelming. It has left me deeply moved at times, and full of gratitude. I leave for Rome tonight uplifted by this response. For if one man’s dying can evoke such an outpouring of love and gratitude then it is true: we are all in God’s hands.

You have heard him described as God’s athlete, and so he was. He loved nothing better than hillwalking and cross-country skiing. There is a story told of him, that when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow he once skiied, without realising, up to the border of what was then Czechoslovakia. The border patrol demanded to see his papers, then became furious with him. “You silly man, do you realise whose identity papers you’ve stolen? Pretending to be the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow! This” the guard said, “is going to put you away for a very long time.” “But I assure you,” said the future Pope, “I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow.” And the militiaman snorted: “A cardinal who skis?” “Do you think I’m crazy?”

After he was elected, he was delighted by the apparent incongruity of his office and his favourite sport. “How many Popes since St. Peter have been able to ski?” he mischievously asked reporters. “Answer: One!”

And so it was characteristic that he did not see his election to the See of Peter in 1978 as a confinement, but an invitation to go global. His was a papacy made for the age of air miles. “The Pope can’t remain a prisoner in the Vatican”, he once said. “I want to go to everybody … from the nomads in the steppes to the monks and nuns in their convents … I want to cross the threshold of every home.” These last few days have shown the extent to which that ambition was achieved. Having crossed the world for so long, in his last years the world crossed back to him, gathering round his bed of pain to give thanks. That is why the abiding image of his papacy may well be the final one: of St Peter’s Square on Friday night filled with young people standing in serene silence. There was in that square a great stillness; the Lord was coming to take his servant to the reward prepared for him; and it was enough to be close to that fading life on Friday night to feel the nearness of God to us all.

There are many great statesmen and women assembled this afternoon in this place. You who have been part of history unfolding have come to pay tribute to one who understood that beneath that unfolding is a divine design. When he was elected in 1978, John Paul II believed that the Holy Spirit was summoning not one particular individual but the Polish Church to which he belonged, and its experience of clinging tenaciously to the Gospel in the face of official atheism and totalitarian oppression. We know just how important that witness became when Karol Wojtyla visited his homeland again for the first time as Pope, triggering a fever for freedom that would soon sweep across iron curtains and armed borders.

But the Polish Pope was just as tenacious in his challenge to a western world locked in its own forms of oppression – the idolatry of the marketplace, the quicksand of relativism, the subjection of human life to the god of individual self-fulfillment. For all that people have tried to place him in categories of right and left, radical and conservative, Pope John Paul II confounded them time and time again. He was too big for those categories, because, simply, he preached Christ crucified and risen, and all that flowed from that magnificent fact: the indestructible human dignity of human beings created by God.

Why was he such a powerful witness to that dignity? What made the messenger so coherent with his message? It was, I think, two salient facts about his life. The first was that he experienced suffering at an early age: all around him in wartime Poland was death: the crushing of millions and millions of lives, incalculable devastation, and the persecution of the Jewish people to whom he was always close. The second was his relationship with God. A man of deep prayer, he breathed intimacy with God; he radiated stillness; at the core of his being was the rock of the divine presence, which left him impervious to the winds above. Both of these facts made him what he was. To be exposed to suffering without the rock of faith can lead to despair and disillusionment. But with a life of faith – with the knowledge of the resurrection without which, as St Paul says in our reading today, our preaching is in vain – that experience of suffering can breed a desire to defend and nurture the flame of freedom and dignity. As the Pope himself put it, in that passage in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope which is quoted in your booklets, “The awareness of these dangers does not generate pessimism, but rather encourages the struggle for the victory of good in every realm.”

Dear friends, that is why Pope John Paul II made no fewer than thirteen visits to Africa – to plead for the dignity of the African people not to be drowned by poverty and war. That is why he called for the forgiveness of debt, and for the deepening of human solidarity. That is why he set his face against attempts to extinguish human life in the womb or to experiment with such life in the test tube. That is why he called on totalitarian regimes everywhere to free their peoples . That is why in every circumstance, he pleaded for peace; that is why he pleaded for the lives of prisoners on Death Row, and why he always placed the universal Church at the service of the weakest and the most vulnerable and those who have no one to plead for them. And that is why he has been described as one of history’s greatest Christians, and we shall surely be calling him Pope John Paul the Great.

Karol Wojtyla’s later years were ones of fragility and vulnerability. That is when his words began to become fewer and his message more direct. When he no longer needed words, the world came close to him as never before. Even though we saw less of him, he became, in some ways, more accessible – an embodiment of simply humanity. The God-given core of every human being which he had dedicated himself to defend became more and more evident.

Now confined in his frailty, he nonetheless continued to cross over borders, provoking, sometimes, the hostility of those who wanted to safeguard those borders. Just as some thought that it was not the lot of a cardinal to ski, many told him that it was not the lot of a Pope to call together the leaders of other faiths to pray for peace, as he did in Assisi in 1986. So too he apologised to the Jewish people for the sins of the Christian Church; he became the first Pope to step inside a Mosque, and he extended the hand of friendship to our Muslim brothers and sisters; he insisted that religion must never be a cause for division, but the most potent of all means of solidarity. In his acts and his speeches John Paul II embodied the real purpose of the divine design made manifest on the Cross and in the empty tomb and in Christ’s rising on the third day. “Love”, the Pope said once, “is the gift of self. It means emptying oneself to reach out to others”.

That is why, even when they did not believe as he did that Christ was crucified and risen, the Pope reminded people of what they knew deep in their hearts. That is why, when this fragile disciple of Christ went on his visit to Jerusalem in the year 2000, and prayed at the Wailing Wall, and left in one of its crevices a prayer of repentance and a pledge of friendship with the people of the Covenant, one of the leading Israeli newspapers said simply, in gratified amazement, ‘A man of God has walked among us’.

I think of him, too, kneeling in prayer alongside the late Archbishop Robert Runcie in Canterbury Cathedral, both reverencing the sacred scriptures, the word of God – pilgrims on the road towards full Christian communion stopping to embrace each other, and encourage each other on that journey. I think of him reaching out to our Orthodox brethren. And I think of the Pope’s moving meeting with Archbishop Rowan Williams in October 2003, which I was privileged to share.

Dear friends, that the papacy of John Paul II will occupy a singular place in our history books is beyond doubt. But today we are not asked to assess that place; we are here this evening to unite our prayers in thanksgiving for a person who, above all, loved God and saw his mission as enabling God to live in the hearts of all his fellow human beings. And we are here to pledge ourselves to contributing to the building of the civilisation of love for which the Pope struggled throughout his life.

The words of Pope John Paul must be the final ones. “We must not be afraid of the future” he once said. “Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of the one who is the origin of all that is. With these gifts and with the help of God’s grace we can build a civilisation worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom. We can and we must do so. In doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century [which has just past] have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit”.

May he rest in peace.