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A new hope

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 4, 2005

Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, I had never been much of a Catholic. I rarely made it to Mass more than once or twice a month. I had attended more bar mitzvahs than baptisms. There was not a single crucifix anywhere in my house. And when asked in CCD class in third grade who the Pope was, I confidently answered, “The President of Italy.”

Nevertheless, while reading the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, specifically those stories regarding the global mourning over the impending death of Pope John Paul II, I started crying. Yes, the kid who could stoically get through “E.T.,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Schindler’s List,” and even “Rudy” without shedding a tear, started weeping over a simple page of newsprint. It truly was one of the most peculiar moments of my life, and at the time, I had no idea what came over me.

After all, I have never been to the Vatican, nor have I ever even watched the Pope speak on television. I have never read any of his encyclicals or apostolic letters, and until recently, I barely even knew what it was that he did besides drive around in a bubble car and wear a funny hat. On top of that, I have often found myself in disagreement with many of the more orthodox positions of John Paul II, especially in regards to abortion, euthanasia, birth control, gender, homosexuality and embryo research. Still, when I read about his illness and his effects on the worldwide Catholic community on Saturday, I cried like a baby. What was wrong with me?

It soon dawned on me that I finally understood what it felt like to be lost in a cave without a torch, and when I saw that the rest of the world’s one billion Catholics shared my predicament, it may have pushed me over the edge. Upon further reflection, I began to recognize that my entire life had been spent under the misconception that a person had to wear a crown or fight wars or live in a white house to truly deserve the title of Leader. I think what really had me upset and confused on Saturday morning, though, was the realization that I didn’t know a damn thing about how the world worked.

For all of the importance that I have blindly bestowed upon the office of the presidency of the United States, I never stopped to think about what made that position so great. Sure, a president can improve the lives of some people through tax breaks and social programs, but that does not change the fact that a huge chunk of the globe typically despises this “leader of the free world,” regardless of which political party pulls his strings.

On Saturday, after seeing the equally distraught faces of European citizens in St. Peter’s Square, Middle Eastern nuns in Jerusalem and New Yorkers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, all huddled together as one collective mass of humanity, life began to make sense again, and I cried with my fellow brothers and sisters. If one man could have such a profound uniting effect on the world – a world full of genocide and racial discrimination and war and political malfeasance and greed and hunger and terrorism and hatred – then humanity might still have a chance.

Great leaders, I realized, do not grace the world with their presence very often, and for every Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Paul II that emerges to bring us together, there are a hundred million other Osama bin Ladens, Adolf Hitlers and Kim Jong Ils around to split us apart. The tricky part, of course, is distinguishing between the uniters and the dividers before it is too late.

For me, I never quite understood just how important John Paul II was as the glue that held over one billion of the Earth’s children together. If I had known earlier about his diplomatic efforts for achieving global harmony by visiting 129 countries, his vital role in ending communism and restoring peace to the Middle East, and his passion for spreading the values of Catholic social teaching in the hopes of rescuing all of humanity from its unnecessary suffering, perhaps I would not have been so surprised by Saturday morning’s newspaper. Maybe if I had understood that the true leader of the free world was not a person whose primary goal was American hegemony, but a person whose only goal was global solidarity, then I probably would have been better prepared to handle the emotional distress of losing the Pope.

Regardless, though, I finally feel safe saying that there is still a chance for the human race to come together and prosper, and that is just another reason to shed tears of joy over the accomplished life of John Paul II.

Joey Falco is a sophomore American Studies major. He can be contacted at

jfalco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.