"Standing Up" For The Only Pope I Ever Knew

In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

The Vicar of Christ has died. Battling Parkinson’s Disease for many years, and suffering from respiratory and other medical problems, Pope John Paul II died in the Vatican on April 2 , 2005. He was the only Pope I ever knew, beginning his papacy when I was only 4 years old. His career was long and significant, and his will go down in history as one of the most significant papacies in Church history.

Born Karol Josef Wojtyla in Poland, Pope John Paul II was elected in October 1978. His accomplishments are many, and his legacy for the Catholic Church will be felt for years to come. Among his many, many “firsts,” Pope John Paul II was the first Pope in history to visit Rome’s main synagogue. He was also the first Pope in history to enter mosque, doing so during a trip to Syria in 2001. He invited world religious leaders to Assisi to pray for peace following the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.

Yet, perhaps the most significant thing the Pope did – for me, at least – was his active participation in the Second Vatican Council between 1962-1965. For many – if not most- Catholics, the Second Vatican Council was important in that it changed many aspects of Catholic religious life. For example, before Vatican II – as it has been called, Sunday mass was said all in Latin, with the priest facing the altar with his back to the congregation. That all changed with the Second Vatican Council. (I attended a Catholic University, Marquette, and so that is how I know all this…)

For me, Vatican II was important because of what it said about Muslims and Muslim-Christian relations. In the document entitled Nostra Aetate, it says:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

It is this last paragraph that I believe is most significant, and it is a sentiment I deeply share and strongly emphasize in this day and age. It echoes this call from the Qur’an:

Say (O Muhammad): ‘People of the Book! Let us come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.’ If then they turn back, say ye: ‘Bear witness that we (at least) are those who submit ourselves to the will of God” (3:64).

As I am not a Catholic, I will never understand how it feels to watch the Holy Father pass away. Yet, for me it is sort of akin to the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) for Muslims. When he died, the direct connection to the Divine was lost forever. The living, breathing embodiment of Islam and how one should live in accordance to God’s will left this earth never to return. His beautiful grace, his warm smile, his gentle hands, his soothing presence, his magnificent magnanimity, his face that glowed with light of God; all this will never again be seen on this earth. It was a day of deep, profound, and unending sadness, and we Muslims feel the effect of his loss each and every day we live.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once was sitting with his Companions when a funeral procession for a non-Muslim passed by. He stood and waited for the procession to pass. His Companions asked him why, as he was not Muslim. The Prophet (pbuh) replied, “Was not he a human being?” Right on, my beloved Messenger, right on. Pope John Paul II was a great human being, and he deserves our honor and respect. So, let me – here in the United States and following the tradition of my beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – allow this blog post be my “standing up” for the Pope as he passes from this life to the next.


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