Pope John Paul II died on Saturday and Catholics and many others will be mourning in the days and weeks ahead. Commentators will offer assessments on the Pope's influence, not only on the Catholic Church but also the world political scene.
As many people are already engaging in conversation about the Pope's leadership, I remember how in 1993 my wife Mev Puleo had a couple close encounters with Pope John Paul II. The place was Denver, Colorado and the occasion was World Youth Day, an international gathering of Catholic youth to pray, sing, network, and build community. The Pope himself appeared several times at this festival that attracted well over 400,000 people.
Mev had been doing church-based activism for several years. She'd written a book on liberation theology in Brazil, had been involved with the Catholic Worker Movement, and had gotten a Master's degree in theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was a free-lance photographer who'd done work in Mexico, El Salvador, and Haiti in addition to Brazil. In the summer of 1993, she was about to embark on doctoral studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Mev figured she had been invited to be an emcee at this event because Catholics from many different countries were coming and she knew Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, these polyglot gifts being deemed useful to the planners of the events. She ultimately accepted the invitation though she was a little wary about being too cozy with the institutional Church. After having traveled on a human rights delegation to Haiti in 1992 in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Mev was shocked that the Vatican was the only diplomatic entity to recognize Haiti's coup government.
During the World Youth Day events-Masses, prayer services, Stations of the Cross-Mev addressed and invited the throngs of Catholic youth to participate. She also took two opportunities to directly address Pope John Paul II. On one occasion, she said, "Please, listen to the people of Haiti. Please, hear the cry of women. Please." Then, another time, she said, "Please, listen to the poor people of Haiti, listen to Bishop Romulus, he is a good man. Do you understand?" The Pope responded, "Yes, I understand."
During the week, Mev was mobbed by young people who were excited to know what it was like for her to be in such close proximity to the Pope. A couple of weeks later, in reflecting on the whole week of events, Mev wrote, "Sadly, though, the structure is set up in what I find to be an idolatrous way - the build up when [John Paul II] enters a stadium. It promotes Pope-worship! Looking at him so close on the stage, I still think - He is just a man. A kind, lovable, endearing man. But a human. When people say he is the closest thing to God, when people ask me if I think he is a truly 'holy' man, I respond that I believe the structure he lives in is a real impediment to holiness! I do believe that. [He's] surrounded by men, power, and prestige."
At one point, Mev's temporary celebrity as emcee was recognized by Channel 4 TV in Denver. A reporter asked her what she would say to the Pope if there was time for a conversation between them. Mev's response: "I would tell him to spend time at the margins, with people who are excluded from systems of power, the poor at a soup kitchen, the homeless at a shelter, women at a battered women's shelter, etc. To leave the confines of security and protection and elites and mix with those at the margins. Conversion comes through the grace of relationships - as [Brazilian theologian] Leonardo Boff said, you have to feel the skin of a woman; as [Brazilian theologian] Clodovis Boff said, you have to kiss the leper."
Mev's challenge to Pope John Paul II retains a compelling validity. The Pope's successor will inherit that position in a structure that provides for security, protection and easy access to political, economic, and media elites.
But there is a broader relevance to Mev's call to leave the comfort zone. In the United States, Catholics would do well to attend to the consequences of the war in Iraq, which was strongly opposed by the deceased pontiff. We need to leave the confines of our own security and protection and attend to the stories of those at the margins today. We must listen to our wounded and maimed soldiers coming back from Iraq, we must seek to be in solidarity with the Iraqi civilian victims of the U.S. occupation, and we must not forget the detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay who have been abused and tortured and denied their Geneva Convention human rights.
Our conversion will come when we risk relationship with those who have been violated in body and soul by this immoral war.
Mark Chmiel is the author of The Book of Mev (2005) and Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (2001).