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The Pop Pope

Burgess takes on holy men like Pope John Paul II. And Bob Marley.

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The deep and sincere grief that greeted the passing of Pope John Paul II was impressive in the way it cut across denominational lines. It brought to my mind another public figure who often reminded me of the Polish pontiff—the late Bob Marley.

No disrespect intended. I understand that the spiritual leader of one billion Catholics cannot truly be equated with the official minstrel saint of the Rastafarian clan. And granted, it would be a rather eclectic CD player that would hold discs by Bob Marley and Pope John Paul II.

But aside from their dual identities as recording artists and religious leaders, the two figures do have things in common. Both espoused strong religious messages. Both were, and are, beloved on a truly global scale. And their devoted following persists, in many cases, not because of but in spite of that message.

As a firebrand whose cries for social justice frequently promised earthly violence and divine retribution, Bob Marley has become perhaps the most unlikely of easy-listening icons. Coffee shop favorites like “One Love” and “Get Up, Stand Up” wrap a smooth sugar coating around some rather startling lyrics. How many listeners are paying attention to “Get Up, Stand Up” as it levels its Rastafarian attack on Christianity: “We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game, dying and going to heaven in Jesus’ name”? Likewise the blissful sing-along chorus of “One Love” gives way to some rather dire reiteration of Rastafarian dogma: “Is there a place for the hopeless sinner…. There is no hiding place from the Father of Creation.” It’s a long way from three little birdies on the doorstep.

But Marley’s timeless music and, often, hopeful message allow his audience to be selective in what they take from his legacy. Similarly, the charisma and tireless pilgrimage of Karol Wojtyla inspired countless observers who might not have been expected to embrace his policies.

Heaven sent messenger

John Paul II was truly a Pope for the media age, and the Catholic Church is much the richer for it. Dynamic, brilliant, peripatetic, blessed with humor and a rare ability to communicate (in a stunning array of languages), John Paul II was heaven-sent for a fading church. Much of his work was truly bold and enlightened, particularly his push for ecumenical reconciliation and his fearless stands against government injustice on both sides of the political spectrum. Pope John Paul II took on both the Polish Communists and George Bush’s military adventurism.

Nonetheless John Paul’s basic philosophy was anything but progressive. At a pivotal time for the Church he stemmed the tide of progress on contraception and women’s rights. (There’s another nod to Marley—the reggae singer’s continuing across-the-board popularity belies his near-Stone Age beliefs on the role of women in society.)

John Paul’s social policies would seem to be a hard sell in a Western world that now accepts the equality of the sexes, not to mention the wisdom of birth control. This Pope’s smack-down of South American liberation theology dovetailed with an overall vision that stood in opposition to progressive social evolution in the modern world.

None of this had much impact on the Pope’s popularity. How could it? The man was a poet, a polymath, an athlete who hit the ski slopes as cameras watched. His charisma, his globetrotting, his bravery in the face of an assassin’s bullets (and compassion as he met with the would-be killer) elevated him to a level of public adulation never approached by Pope Paul VI.

A true media star, Pope John Paul II was beloved for his style and obvious personal integrity. His prominence and popularity only reinforced his political power, and he was able to remake the Church hierarchy in his own philosophical image. John Paul became a Trojan Horse, and his troops are now in control of Vatican City. The Catholic Church has decisively turned away from the reforms of Vatican II.

There is little talk of that this week. Instead the news reports speak of his kindness, his outreach to the Jewish community, his (probably exaggerated) role in the collapse of Communism. John Paul’s charisma continues to blind observers to his true significance.

The secular slog

These are tough times for the militantly secular. A cloud of darkness and ignorance is advancing across American public life as the cheap thugs of the religious right roll to victory after victory. In such desperate times everything becomes relative, and it should be clear to all who oppose religious tyranny that, in comparison to vicious demagogues like Jerry Falwell and political henchmen like Tom De Lay, the late Pope was a Renaissance man. Many times his voice was raised for justice.

Still, he was the head of an organization that for centuries has lain like a dead weight on the human spirit. And in his conservative teachings he reaffirmed that Catholics are not free agents, but are bound by centuries of history and Church teaching. In an odd way, I agreed with him. I have never quite understood some people’s need to twist a petrified Church into some new shape. Better to leave it and set your own course. As Albert Camus said: “Trust those who seek the truth, and mistrust those who find it.”

Or as Bob Marley put it, “Half the story has never been told.”

Hey, they’re still great songs.

Steve Burgess is a regular critic for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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