In one of the more misguided and cynical comments ever made, Joseph Stalin is reputed to have called the genuine power and authority of the papacy into question by asking: "How many divisions does he control?"
People coming of age intellectually and spiritually during this same era were confronted as well with the unwillingness to suspend disbelief symbolized by the confident assertions of Nietzsche proclaiming the death of God.
It is the enduring legacy of Karol Wojtyla to have rescued religion from oblivion by restoring its relevance and faith from ridicule by speaking to the hearts and minds of a generation of skeptical seekers.
One of the great figures of Rabbinic Judaism, Rabbi Judah the prince, instructed his disciples that upon his death, they were not to eulogize him in small towns. Some of the more creative rabbis of later generations interpreted his instructions metaphorically, and not literally. They understood Rabbi Judah to be imploring his students to eulogize him and assess his legacy in a large and expansive enough manner so as to capture the full measure of his complexity. Don't reduce me to a single caricature, but make the effort to transcend the obvious and transparent in figuring out the multiple layers of meaning my life offers and represents.
This is the singular challenge we face in defining the impact of John Paul II. He was not merely a theological conservative who asserted with great vigor and clarity the enduring validity of church teaching and doctrine. He was not merely the tireless champion of social justice and human rights whose moral authority has altered for the good the course of modern political history. He was far more than a voice for compassion and reconciliation, whose teachings about the meaning of forgiveness came through the crucible of personal example. His legacy surely transcends the historical and honorable role of religious leader reaching out to other faith-traditions in sincerity and humility.
The Pope was surely all these things. But it seems to me that the great tapestry of his life speaks to something even larger and more profound.
In the midst of the twin dangers of Nazism and Communism, each of which threatened to obliterate the sanctity of the individual, the pope was able to provide through word and deed a reminder of how a community that treasures its members looks like and acts towards one another. He insisted that we view the critical questions of human existence and social relationships as all being variations on a single, grand theme. What set of policies and personal faith commitments gives most eloquent expression to the value that we attach to each human life, whose right to dignity and worthy is not a function of the theories of secular leaders but a great and irrevocable gift of the Divine?
Unfolding moral challenge
If we utilize this paradigm for responding to the unfolding moral challenges of our time, we may disagree on specifics and quarrel over nuances but we surely will move inexorably in the direction of a kinder and gentler and more just world, one in which the teachings of religion and the impulse towards faith become yet again forces for good. This surely will be the enduring and powerful way to honor the teachings and respect the legacy of this towering religious, intellectual and spiritual personality.
X Rabbi Simeon Kolko is the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Temple Center in Warren.