Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pope John Paul II: ‘Be not afraid’

updated chapter from the book 'Souldance' by Jean Lowrie-Chin
Pope John Paul II - from

Catholics, even ‘cafeteria Catholics’ (who choose which rules to take or leave), have deeply felt the loss of Pope John Paul II.  This successor of St Peter, was ‘Il Papa’, the father of the Church and Head of State of the Vatican with its autonomous system of government and internationally respected papal ambassadors.

I had a chat with Monsignor Richard Albert about Pope John Paul, whose visit to Jamaica he helped to coordinate in August 1993 (and with whom we collaborated on PR for the event).  He had first met the Pope when he accompanied the late Archbishop Samuel Carter to Rome in 1979.  When he was introduced as a priest who worked with the poor, the Pope said, “Tell the poor that John Paul loves them.”  Richard Albert got as many photos of the Pope as he could to distribute to his church members in Windsor Heights.

During the Pope’s visit, Monsignor remembers waiting at our National Stadium for the Pope to change after Mass, while the media clamoured for their photo ops (at that time 55 international media traveled with him).  “When I enquired why the Pope was delayed, his assistant Father Tucci was nervously chain-smoking as he waited and told me the Pope was saying his evening prayer: ‘No one disturbs the Pope when he prays’. Suddenly the Pope emerges from his changing room with a twinkle in his eyes and asks, ‘Are you not going to take a tired Pope home?’”

I felt blessed when the Pope warmly clasped my hand, as he greeted the working group for his visit at a lunch at Stephanie Hall in Half Way Tree.  A hearty traveler, he enjoyed our national dish, ackee and saltfish served at the Archbishop’s Hopefield Avenue home, where he stayed while in Jamaica.

Monsignor underlined the Pope’s place in history as the supporter of his native Poland in their overthrow of communism, which then emboldened East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall in 1988.  Pope John Paul was consistent in his campaign for the preservation of human life, justice and world peace.  He opposed the death penalty, the US sanctions against Cuba and the Iraq war.  It is significant that communist Cuba declared three days of mourning for this Pope who spoke so stridently against both communism and unbridled capitalism. 

For me, one of the most eloquent moments in Pope John Paul’s life, was his forgiveness of the man who tried to assassinate him.  This was not via an impersonal letter, but an actual fatherly visit when he embraced the Turkish convict, and prayed to heal his prodigal soul. 

For a denomination which has only five percent of Jamaicans as its members, the Catholic Church has certainly made an impact on the social and educational landscape of our country. Its institutions are stamped with the Catholic passion for intellectual achievement, social conscience and spiritual fulfillment.

The nuns and priests of the Church have a fervour for education, seeing it as the most direct path to self reliance.  In the town of Sav-la-mar some decades ago, the Catholic priest Father Knight, agreed to barter groceries and the sewing of vestments so that our widowed shopkeeper mother could send us to St Mary’s Academy, run by the Mercy Sisters.  With the arrival of a devout Catholic stepfather, we converted to Catholicism and our lives were centred around prayer and the sacraments, and studying under the keen eyes of the Sisters of Mercy at Alpha Prep and then Alpha Academy (my brother attended the Jesuit-run St George’s College). 

The Catholic Mass is the response to Christ’s command at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me”. Childhood friend Aloun Assamba, now Jamaica's High Commissioner to the UK, says she gets great comfort from knowing that wherever in the world she is, she will attend the same celebration with the exact words as spoken 2,000 years before.

It is true that the Catholic Church has had its valleys, corrupt popes who sold ‘indulgences’ (a non-stop flight to heaven), the bloody crusades and the recent sex scandal involving priests.  But it is also true that the Church has admitted to these sins and continues to introduce appropriate checks and balances to ensure transparency.  By educating its faithful to be assured and articulate, the Church has a built-in monitoring system which will ultimately uncover corruption. 

The Church that John Paul II led constantly reminds its followers of our responsibility to the society.  We are taught that volunteerism and philanthropy are nothing to brag about - it is our Christian duty.  In the most depressed areas of the Corporate Area, you will find the Catholics at work – Sister Benedict, Father HoLung, Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, Bishop Burchell McPherson who served in Olympic Gardens, Father Ramkissoon with Mustard Seed, Monsignor Richard Albert with St Patrick’s Foundation and St Monica’s, the Mahfoods with Food for the Poor.

At the top of the academic table, the two most sought after high schools in Jamaica are Catholic: Campion College and Immaculate Conception.  Alpha, Holy Childhood, Mount Alvernia, St Mary’s College, St. Catherine High continue to hold their own.  Jamaica’s brilliant history in music was enriched by the graduates of the Alpha Boys School with Sisters Marie Therese and Ignatius at the helm.

Catholics saw Pope John Paul II as a strict but loving Father, who would not promise us an easy ride through our world’s journey. He bravely confronted the bullies of the planet, and the rigours of his illness. His life calls us to righteousness with the words he used at the beginning of his papacy and lived to the fullest:  “Be not afraid.”

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