Pope John Paul II

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

The world was buzzing with rumors about U.S.-Soviet talks as President Ronald Reagan flew to Italy for a global economic summit in the summer of 1987.

There were only two events on Reagan's schedule before the Group of Seven sessions -- a June 6 meeting with Pope John Paul II and a hush-hush briefing beforehand by U.S. Vatican Ambassador Frank Shakespeare.

The secret topic, at Reagan's request: The visions of Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Portugal in 1917, including prophecies linking St. Mary, Russia and, the world would later learn, the shooting of a "bishop in white." This was crucial information about John Paul II.

The pope believed Mary intervened to save his life on May 13, 1981, when an assassin tied to Bulgarian spies and Soviet military intelligence gunned him down in St. Peter's Square -- on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima vision.

The pope needed six pints of blood to survive. Reagan required eight pints during surgery after he was shot six weeks earlier, on March 30th. He was convinced his survival was part of a divine plan, which Reagan called the "DP."

Reagan met John Paul II for the first time a year after the shootings. He told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."

Clearly, the Soviet plans "backfired," said author Paul Kengor, in an Oct. 22 lecture at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

"The Soviets were worried about an alliance. Right? So they wanted to end this alliance -- especially by getting rid of the pope," he said, speaking on the feast day of St. John Paul II.

Instead, these men went on to hold five strategic meetings, backed by an unknown number of back-channel contacts. Kengor's book about their friendship, "A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Story of the 20th Century," was published in 2017.

"Well, you really screwed this up," said Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College. "Now, these two -- they've got the world's most exclusive, mutual prayer society. They've got a bond that no pope and president may ever have."

There was no translator present in the 1987 Vatican meeting between Reagan and the multilingual John Paul II. The president told aides that they discussed U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in his public statement afterwards Reagan also included strong words about the future of Poland. John Paul II was days away from another trip to his homeland.

Dueling saints from the Second Vatican Council?

History will show St. John XXIII was a pastor with an "exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit," while St. John Paul II will be known "as the pope of the family." That was as close as Pope Francis came to providing the sound bite all the so-called Vatican experts were waiting to hear during the historic St. Peter's Square rites in which he -- with the retired Pope Benedict XVI looking on -- elevated to sainthood two popes who did so much to shape modern Catholicism.

The media mantra called the humble Pope John XXIII the patron saint of the left, while Pope John Paul II was the courageous general for the right. Clearly, Pope Francis' goal was to broker peace between these warring Catholic camps.

Francis stayed the course.

"St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were ... priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century," he said. "They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful -- faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history."

Francis then linked both saints to the Second Vatican Council, the seismic event that defined their era: "John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries."

So both popes sought renewal, but also to guard the faith's foundations. After all, in his October 11, 1962 address that opened the Council, Pope John XXIII declared: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this -- that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously."

The young Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Poland was an active participant at Vatican II. The future Pope John Paul II was known for his contribution to the epic constitution "The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)," which he loved to quote, along with various other Vatican II texts.

In fact, during his "heroically long pontificate" -- almost 27 years -- John Paul offered detailed written and verbal commentary on "virtually every controversial or disputed point in the Council documents and on the event of the Council itself," noted Father John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular "What does the Prayer Really Say?" weblog.

The future St. John Paul the Great, as many are already calling him, "may not have solved, settled, definitively pronounced, on every controversial issue, but he offers commentary and insight on them. ... I think Francis was steering us to John Paul II as an additional interpretive lens, for a proper hermeneutic of reform."

Meanwhile, it's also important to remember that "conventional political labels" like "liberal" and "conservative" are simply inadequate when discussing the work of saints, said Father James Martin, a Jesuit best known as The Colbert Report chaplain and through books such as "My Life with the Saints" and "Jesus: A Pilgrimage."

In terms of the substance of his life and work, both liturgical and doctrinal, Pope John XXIII is "probably best thought of as a 'conservative.' I think that on moral and sexual issues ... he probably would have implemented the Council's work in the same way as John Paul."

Meanwhile, John Paul II did so much to push forward on issues such as economic justice, world peace, ecumenism, mass communications and a host of other subjects. It's impossible to look at the sweep of his remarkable life and conclude, as some critics have, that his pontificate was dedicated to "trying to slam the lid back on" after the Second Vatican Council. "That's just too simplistic to argue that," he said.

The larger truth is that both of these popes, now hailed as saints, embodied the work of the Second Vatican Council, each in their own way, in their own time.

"It's true that there were clusters of issues that led Catholics in different camps to adopt one or the other as their hero," said Martin. "But those labels are so limiting, while the lives of these two men were not. ... People that insist on using political labels keep trying to turn everything into a contest about who wins and who loses. That's not the way to talk about the lives of the saints."

Commandments for believers who blog

Popes rarely produce viral sound bites, but legions of Catholic bloggers continue to pass around a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in which he openly blessed the passion that drives them to their keyboards. "Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for 2000 years," he said, in a 2010 Vatican address easily found at YouTube. The goal is to live in the "digital world with a believer's heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet's incessant flow of communication."

If that quotation is too long, bloggers can embrace this shout out from Pope John Paul II, who could become the patron saint of digital scribes. Just before his death in 2005, he proclaimed: "Do not be afraid of new technologies!"

That quote should fit atop a computer monitor.

"The greatest obstacle is always fear, when the church tries to get involved in something new," said Brandon Vogt, author of "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet."

"There's the fear of the unknown, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of creating controversy and, most of all, the fear of causing divisions in the church. ... Are there going to be bad apples? Of course. Will there be people who think they've been appointed as the pope? Of course. But Catholic leaders -- including our bishops -- can't ignore what is happening online."

As in the secular media, the social-media tsunami has rocked the old-guard religious publications.

For Catholics, diocesan newspapers long served as the official establishment voices, often clashing with independent publications on left and right, as well as those produced by religious orders such as the Jesuits. Now, Catholic bloggers have emerged as a quick-striking source of alternative commentary and information -- often from a sharply pro-Vatican point of view.

"The Catholic blogosphere is probably one of the most orthodox parts of the American church, in large part because there were so many people who feel like the church being attacked and they want to defend it," said T.J. Burdick, a Catholic educator who edited the new "One Body, Many Blogs" e-Book.

In this collection, a circle of Catholic writers provided their "10 commandments" lists for blogging about religion. In addition to the need for prayer before clicking "post," these blunt recommendations included:

* First, said Marc Barnes of the Bad Catholic blog: "Don't suck. There is a tendency within the Christian world to think the work we do will be good work, if only we do it for God." Anything less than excellence "is no service to God, no matter how well we think we are witnessing, giving testimony, or whatever Christian euphemism we want to use to disguise the fact that we can't be bothered to make something awesome."

* Never assume "everyone who reads your work has the same viewpoint on issues of faith," wrote Lisa Hendey of CatholicMom.com. "Find a Jewish, Protestant or even Atheist friend or acquaintance and invite them to join you for a cup of coffee and a peek at your blog. While they view it, watch carefully how they interact with your content and what lasting impressions they have in reading your work."

* Along that line, but in pews, Deacon Greg Kandra advised: "Keep an open mind to the many ways there are of Being Catholic. Not everyone loves the Latin Mass. Not everyone adores strumming guitars and liturgical dance." When in doubt, he added, "Ask yourself periodically: WWJB?"

* Kevin Knight of NewAdvent.org warned: "Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a pixel, will pass from the Wayback Machine cache until all is accomplished." With a strong "amen," Katrina Fernandez of The Crescat said her first commandment is to "remember that we will be ultimately judged by every word we utter and write. The Internet is forever, folks."

* Former atheist Jeff Miller, blogging at The Curt Jester, advised: "Do onto other bloggers as you would want them to do onto you. If you want to be linked by others, then be generous in linking to others and to give proper attributions to where you first noticed a story. If you want others not to jump to conclusions about what you write, make sure you are not doing the same."

Polish visions behind Vatican rites

To grasp the full symbolism of the Vatican rites in which a million or more Catholics celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II, it helps to understand the visions recorded decades earlier in the diary of Sister Mary Faustina Kowalksa. Popes come and popes go. But the lives of this Polish nun and this Polish pope may be helping to reshape a crucial piece of the Catholic year -- the celebrations that follow Easter, the high point of the Christian year.

It was in 1937 that Sister Faustina wrote: "As I was praying for Poland I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming."

After her earlier visions, which church leaders initially discounted, the young nun had written down a cycle of prayers appealing for God's forgiveness and mercy, a set of devotions that became known as the "Divine Mercy Chaplet." In the years after her death in 1938, a seminarian in nearby Krakow named Karol Wojtyla became devoted to these prayers and to the legacy of Sister Faustina.

Wojtyla, of course, soon became a priest and a popular professor, before beginning his ascent as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Then, in 1978, he became Pope John Paul II.

No one was surprised when this loyal son of Poland beatified Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993, and canonized her on April 30, 2000. "The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me," noted John Paul II, during a 1997 pilgrimage to the nun's tomb. It could be said, he added, that her message "forms the image of this pontificate."

The next crucial date in this time line came shortly after Sister Faustina became St. Faustina, when Pope John Paul II established that the first Sunday after Easter would also be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.

The elevation of this humble "daughter of my land, is not only a gift for Poland but for all humanity," declared John Paul II, in his 2001 sermon on the first Divine Mercy Sunday. "Indeed the message she brought is the appropriate and incisive answer that God wanted to offer to the questions and expectations of human beings in our time, marked by terrible tragedies. Jesus said to Sr. Faustina one day: 'Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy.' Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity."

Only four years later, the timing of the pope's death added another connection between Easter and Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as between his life and that of St. Faustina. John Paul died after sundown on the Saturday after Easter, literally at the end of a Divine Mercy vigil and Mass that was celebrated at his bedside.

As this rite ended, witnesses said the pope managed one last benediction before he died -- a simple "amen."

Thus, the beatification rites for John Paul II were held on the anniversary of his death, as it would fall on the liturgical calendar -- Divine Mercy Sunday.

If he is later canonized as a saint -- crowds have been chanting the title "John Paul the Great" since the day of his death -- it is logical to ask how this could impact the liturgical calendar for the 1.1 billion Catholics living and worshiping around the world.

The week begins with Easter, the highest moment of celebration in the Christian year. Then comes the "octave" of days dedicated to the Divine Mercy prayers, a period in which priests can offer special confession opportunities for those seeking to return to the sacramental life of the church.

At the end of the week there is Divine Mercy Sunday, which the Catholic Church now teaches is the day when, according to the vision of St. Faustina, forgiveness is uniquely available for all who repent and turn to God. The gates of heaven are wide open.

Could celebrations of the life of St. John Paul the Great -- the charismatic pope whose words will live on in every conceivable form of mass media -- somehow become linked to this great week of celebration?

Follow the time line. Do the math.

Young Catholics wrestle with truth

In one of the defining works of his historic papacy, Pope John Paul II argued that if people -- believers and nonbelievers alike -- want true freedom and peace, they must accept the reality of "universal and unchanging moral norms." "When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions. ... Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal," wrote the pope, in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth").

"In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels."

It would be stating the matter mildly to say that young Catholic adults in America disagree with John Paul II on this issue, according to a new survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

An overwhelming 82 percent of Catholic Millennials -- the generation between 18-29 years of age -- agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative; there is no definite right and wrong for everybody." In comparison, 64 percent of other Millennials affirmed that statement, when questioned by researchers with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Older "American Catholics" were also more willing to embrace moral relativism than were other Americans, at the rate of 63 percent compared with 56 percent. However, a slim majority of "Practicing Catholics" in the survey -- 54 percent -- were willing to affirm the statement, "Morals are fixed and based on unchanging standards."

"Practicing Catholics" were defined as "those who attend religious services at least once a month," explained Barbara L. Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll. This group included "Catholics who attend services more than once a week, once a week, or once or twice a month excluding weddings and funerals," she said.

As stark as those numbers are, it's important to understand that these broad Catholic categories include different kinds of believers who have different beliefs and lifestyles, said Andrew Walter, vice president for media research and development for the Knights of Columbus. For church leaders, the "Practicing Catholics" category will offer more insights into what is happening in pews.

"You have to ask, 'Who is truly connected to their faith? Who is doing something with it?' When you talk about these 'Practicing Catholics,' you are not talking about the Christmas and Easter crowd," he said. "These people have an ongoing link to a Catholic parish and they are doing something with it."

While the poll contains evidence that what Pope Benedict XVI has called a "dictatorship of relativism" may be growing stronger, the numbers also show that young Catholic adults share a yearning for some kind of moral order -- even if they reject the existence of moral absolutes. It's possible to "drill down" into the research, said Walter, and see that when young Catholics are forced to wrestle with individual issues "they are willing to make judgment calls and say that some things are right and some things are wrong."

For example, 91 percent of Catholic Millennials affirmed that adultery is morally wrong, 66 percent said abortion is immoral and 63 percent rejected assisted suicide. When asked to identify virtues that are "not valued enough in American society," 82 percent selected "commitment to marriage," making that the top choice.

But there was a flip side to this moral coin. Only 20 percent of these young Catholic adults agreed with their church's teachings that premarital sex is morally wrong and, thus, sinful. Only 35 percent affirmed doctrines that forbid sexual relationships between homosexuals.

While Catholic Millennials are interested in spiritual growth, only 43 percent said that American society doesn't place enough value on "religious observance," putting that choice in last place. In another answer sure to raise clergy eyebrows, 61 percent affirmed that it's "okay for someone of your religion to also practice other religions" at the same time.

"They want to say they are relativists, but it's also clear that they are not relativists on all issues," stressed Walter. "They have a strong spiritual sense that they say is important in their lives. What they don't have is a place for institutional religion in their lives. ... The problem is that you have some people who have a church and others who really have no church at all."

2005: Is terrorism 'religion' news?

The suicide bomber struck at a sandwich stand in the busy outdoor market of the Israeli coastal city called Hadera, killing five people and wounding dozens more.

Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the blast, which came a month after Israel's September exit from Gaza. Israeli leaders quickly released a statement noting that this attack followed remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map."

The bomber was a Palestinian. News reports did not attempt to pin ethnic or religious labels on the victims.

Are events such as this one "religion" news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers -- Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events "religion" news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

Nevertheless, it's hard not to ask these kinds of questions when reading the list of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 news events of 2005.

The overwhelming choices for the top two stories were the final decline and death of Pope John Paul II -- who mourners hailed as "John Paul the Great" -- and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The 100 religion-beat professionals who took part also selected John Paul II as religion newsmaker of the year, with 68 percent of the vote. The new pope placed second, with 21 percent.

News at the Vatican will always make headlines. The rest of the 2005 list included other familiar topics, from debates about evolution to euthanasia, from battles over homosexuality to unresolved church-state tensions among the justices -- current and future -- at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the top 10 included no events linked to terrorism, Iraq, Israel and the clash of cultures that has dominated the news in recent years.

This is news about religion, but is it "religion" news?

According to historian Martin Marty, America's best-known commentator on religion, it's time for journalists to ask a more disturbing question: "In the wake of Sept. 11, is there any news today that IS NOT religion news?"

Here's the rest of the RNA list of the top 10 religion stories:

(1) The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II after his historic reign of 26-plus years. His courage in the face of death inspires many. Admirers call for his canonization and major networks broadcast mini-series about this life.

(2) The veteran Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top aide to John Paul II, is elected by the cardinals to succeed him as Benedict XVI. Catholic progressives are appalled, while other Vatican insiders watch for signs of what his papacy will bring.

(3) While demonstrators mourn, Terri Schiavo dies in a Florida nursing home after her feeding tube is removed. Politicians, clergy and family members debate her right to live or die.

(4) Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and a devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Many clergy ask: What role did God play in these disasters?

(5) Disputes about homosexuality continue to split the global Anglican Communion, as well as cause tensions among Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists and, in a dispute that finally went public, the American Baptists.

(6) Advocates of "intelligent design" continue to push for the right to question Darwinism in public schools, but suffer stinging defeats in Pennsylvania.

(7) U.S. Supreme Court approves posting of Ten Commandments outside the Texas state capitol and disapproves their posting inside Kentucky courthouses -- both by 5-4 votes. A federal judge reinstates a ban on "under God" in Pledge of Allegiance in three California school districts.

(8) Voices on the religious right and left question President Bush's three nominees to the Supreme Court, with some evangelicals supporting and some opposing born-again candidate Harriet Miers.

(9) Vatican releases long-awaited document on gay seminarians, barring from ordination those who are actively homosexual, have "deeply rooted" gay tendencies or oppose the church's teachings on the subject.

(10) Billy Graham holds a final evangelistic campaign in New York City.

A mystical spark from Poland?

It was in 1931 that a young Polish nun began seeing visions that would touch the life and death of Pope John Paul II and, perhaps, offer a glimpse of the end of all things. Sister Faustina Kowalska reported seeing a merciful Jesus, with beams of red and white light shining from his heart.

In her diary, the cloistered mystic described a 1935 vision in which she was told the write down this prayer as protection from divine judgment: "Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world; for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."

Some of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy thought the uneducated nun was unstable and the Vatican shunned her writings. But her visions impressed a young priest in nearby Krakow named Father Karol Wojtyla, who rose through the ranks from professor to bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Finally, he became Pope John Paul II.

The Polish pope was a champion of Faustina's "Divine Mercy" devotions and, during a 1997 pilgrimage to her tomb, he testified: "The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me." In a sense, he said, it "forms the image of this pontificate." On April 30, 2000, John Paul II canonized her as St. Faustina.

As if these spiritual bonds were not enough, students of St. Faustina's writings found one other possible link between the mysterious nun and the pope.

It was in 1937, a year before she died of tuberculosis, that the 32-year-old nun had another apocalyptic vision of Jesus. She wrote:

"As I was praying for Poland, I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming."

While John Paul II did not speculate publicly about the meaning of these words, his final hours created yet another mystical bridge between his life and St. Faustina. As part of her canonization, the church designated the first Sunday after Easter as the "Feast of Divine Mercy" for the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Following ancient Jewish and Christian traditions, believers begin celebrating holy days at sundown on the previous day. Thus, Pope John Paul II died in the first hours of the feast rooted in St. Faustina's devotions. His last words and symbolic acts took place in the context of a Divine Mercy vigil and Mass celebrated at his bedside by Archbishop Stanislao Dziwisz, his personal aide for 40 years, and a dozen other worshippers.

According to a number of statements to the media, John Paul struggled to dictate this short message to his secretary: "I am happy and you should be happy too. Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy."

During the Mass, which began at 8 p.m., the pope looked toward the window of his apartment -- conscious of the throngs praying outside.

Father Jarek Cielecki, director of Vatican Service News, reported that: "A short while before dying, the pope raised his right hand in a clear, although simply hinted at, gesture of blessing, as if he became aware of the crowd of faithful present in St Peter's Square."

After the Divine Mercy liturgy ended, witnesses said John Paul managed to speak a final benediction before he died -- "amen."

Hours later, thousands gathered for the festive Divine Mercy liturgy. The decorations included the vision of Jesus that an artist painted, following the instructions of St. Faustina of Krakow. It framed the final public words of Pope John Paul II, prepared in advance to be read to the faithful if he was not able to attend.

"To humanity, which at times seems to be lost and dominated by the power of evil, egoism and fear, the risen Lord offers as a gift his love that forgives, reconciles and reopens the spirit to hope," he wrote. "It is love that converts hearts and gives peace. How much need the world has to understand and accept Divine Mercy!"

Pope John Paul II: What's the lead?

Theologian George Weigel needs a Global Positioning System transmitter on his wrist so journalists can keep track of him.

As author of the 1008-page "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II," his life has been hectic since the news flash that the shepherd of the world's 1 billion Catholics had been rushed to hospital, gasping for breath.

Weigel said a network-news reporter recently called and asked, " 'Where are you going to be tonight, in case something happens to the pope?' Well, I said, 'I'm going to church and I'm going home and eat dinner with my family. That's what we do on Ash Wednesday. Is that OK?' "

Reporters are trying to cover their bases. The panic also may have been fueled by another reality. This pope's life is impossible to capture in a few dramatic images, a three-minute sound-bite blitz and a sentence or two about the length of his tenure (second longest ever) and the number of nations he has visited (125 so far).

Journalists must ask: What is the lead on this story? Thus, I contacted a circle of commentators and asked that question. Here is a sample of what I heard.

* Catholic Internet scribe Amy Welborn said she would focus this question: "Has this pope "permanently redefined the papacy?" Will it be possible for future popes to be anything other than "a big-thinking world traveler?" Many Catholics admire wonder if "management-related issues have suffered" with this emphasis on travel and media.

* Steven Waldman, CEO at Beliefnet.com, began with: "Pope John Paul II, who perhaps did more than any other person to end communism ..." Who can forget when Lech Walesa signed the labor agreement at Gdansk shipyard, incarnating the Solidarity movement that helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet empire? Walesa used a pen topped with an image of the Polish pope.

* Baptist scholar Timothy George, part of the 1994 "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" coalition, cited both John Paul's hunger for church unity and his writings, especially "Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth)." Nevertheless, George said he would lead with: "The pope has advocated the sanctity of life in a century suffused with the smell of death, whether that is the stench of the Holocaust ovens or the abortion clinics or innocent victims of terrorism and military conflict. ... He is certainly the greatest pope since the Reformation."

* Adoremus.org editor Helen Hitchcock emphasized the pope's "Theology of the Body" reflections -- gathered from Wednesday public audiences -- on what it means to be human, male and female, and how this affects marriage, children, the elderly, the unborn and the sick.

While liberal Catholics complain about a "reign of terror," Hitchcock said many conservatives also have concerns about John Paul's legacy. "Some believe that he has been very strong on proclaiming the truth, but weaker when it comes to defending the truth. ... After all, he appointed all of our bishops. They are his. That is the reality."

* Russell Chandler, the retired religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, said he isn't ready to write a lead yet. After all, this pope has appointed all but three of the 120 cardinal-electors who will choose his successor, including waves of red hats from Third World nations.

"I think it is not clear that the so-called John Paul II era -- the Pope for the World -- is going to be over," said Chandler. "Pope John Paul II is dead. Long live the Pope. Is this era ... going to continue? Watch for the smoke signal at the Vatican chimney."

Meanwhile, Weigel is convinced reporters do not need to rush to judgment. Based on his personal contacts, he is convinced that the pope's health is actually quite sound for an 84-year-old man who is suffering from arthritis and Parkinson's disease.

"This whole idea that the next breath of wind that comes along is going to blow him over is just wrong," said Weigel.

"The truth of the matter is that he is going to have his ups and his downs. We may see six or seven of these episodes in the next year or two or longer. So are we going to go crazy every time? That is going to get old fast."

Watching Billy and the pope

The old voice was shaky and the pre-recorded tape was poor, but the Rev. Billy Graham's words hit home during the recent Nashville tribute to June and Johnny Cash.

"Millions admired him and adored him, but only a few got into John and June's inner spiritual life," said Graham, who shared many a crusade stage with Cash. "He and June are in heaven, and we are looking forward to seeing them relatively soon."

The words "relatively soon" did not require explanation.

Another American giant will almost certainly be departing soon. There is talk of the world's most famous evangelist returning to London yet again for a 2004 crusade, but few would be surprised if Parkinson's disease prevents those altar calls.

Of course, Graham is too towering a figure to merely belong to America. And the impact of the man some already call Pope John Paul the Great has been too universal to discuss his work only in terms of Roman Catholicism. Both men belong to the ages and to the world.

Scholars and scribes who study religion are bracing for changes that are hard to fathom.

An editorial in The Christian Century asks: "Did a politically shrewd and theologically sophisticated Polish pope trigger the collapse of Communism? Did an energetic and telegenic southern evangelist foster the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the post-World War II era?" The fact that questions of this magnitude make sense is remarkable, especially in an age that only assigns greatness to sports and entertainment celebrities.

As a journal for Protestant progressives, the Century noted that both men have always had their critics -- especially on the left. In 1957, mainline theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said Graham's appeal "depends on oversimplifying every issue." The British Council of Churches once said that he uses "all the tricks of the modern demagogue." Catholic pundit Garry Wills has credited Graham with selling "golf-course spirituality" to the powerful.

On the other side of the aisle, fundamentalist Protestants accused the evangelist of fatal compromises with Catholics and liberals and warned that he had become the most "dangerous man" in Christianity.

Pope John Paul II would understand. He has faced similar sniper fire from both directions, with liberals accusing him of crushing dissent while some traditionalists insist he has failed to adequately crack down on dissent.

This is actually a sign of how influential both of these men have been, said historian Mark Noll, who teaches at Graham's alma mater, Wheaton College.

"If a person is getting criticism from radically different points on the ideological compass, at the very least that implies that they have displayed a certain degree of independence and courage," he said. It is also crucial to note that both men "worked on a great and grand stage in times of tremendous change. Billy Graham was not merely a great evangelist. He was the great evangelist at the time when evangelicalism walked onto the world stage."

Graham and John Paul became statesmen and both mastered modern media, noted journalist David Aikman, author of "Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century." Both built bridges to the thriving churches of the Third World and defended religious liberty worldwide.

The pope's 1989 Vatican meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was merely one dramatic example.

"You can imagine this scene," said Aikman. "The pope greets Gorbachev in Russian and begins lecturing him IN RUSSIAN on how Christians make great citizens and how their beliefs and values are worthy of respect and even favor. Who knows what that meant to Russia? Who knows what impact words such as that might have in China?"

Who knows if new leaders of this stature will emerge quickly? There will be a papal lection and a new pope, noted Noll. But with Graham, there is no way for the diverse and splintered world of evangelical Protestantism to select a true successor. It is a matter of gifts and timing.

"This truly is a case of trying to say 'hail and farewell' as we face the passing of two remarkable men," said Noll. "Everyone knows that this is a moment of great meaning, but no one knows exactly what it means.

"No one knows what will happen next. This is why we struggle for words."