Farewell To A Great

This column was written by Michael Novak.
Well, it seems to be sticking. Signs in the crowds at the funeral read: JOHN PAUL THE GREAT, even JOHANNIS PAULUS MAGNUS, which has about it the air of the ages. Indeed, it has been 1,400 years since the last pope was by popular acclaim called "the Great" -- that was Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) -- and before him there was only Leo the Great (440-461). I do not recall so much emotion at one event in my lifetime -- so many arduous hardships endured by so many just to arrive here, so many truly devout and heartfelt prayers, so many declarations of loyalty and love, so embracing a sense of friendship. The crowds were immensely respectful of one another, across nationalities and races. They wanted these moments in Rome to be worthy of him, and of Him whom he served.

I wonder whether there has ever been so great a crowd at the death of any single human being in history. I wonder whether any single human being has been loved by people of so many different religions and races and regions -- so loved, so honored, so esteemed, and already so sorely missed.

We witnessed something here of historic proportions, and global proportions. It is, indeed, the global church. It is, indeed, humanism's church -- in racial and ethnic reach, in love for everything human. Nil humanum alienum mihi, as the ancient church already said: Nothing human is alien to me. But perhaps that feeling is brought out chiefly, or more clearly, than ever before by the life and enthusiasms of our now dead and beloved pontiff.

Most impressive was the grief of the young, and also their devotion, their deep prayer, and their sense of loss. Beside me in St. Peter's basilica at the first Mass of mourning the next day was a beautiful young woman of college age or just after, in a red sweat shirt with hood, white lace kerchief on her hair. She knelt so devoutly in prayer at the consecration, she was so concerned within, that I took her, possibly, to be Polish. When she turned to go to communion, I could read the motto on the back of her sweat shirt, in white: "You CAN'T be Catholic and pro-abortion," with the address of a website. As we left, she was still wrapped in her own grief and said nothing, perhaps hearing nothing. There is such a feeling of desolation.

How great he was, we shall only know decades, maybe centuries, hence. But those who follow us in the distant future need to know that the wave of feeling here in Rome at his death -- and, apparently, on television worldwide -- is deeper than emotion. It springs from a very deep and ineffable part of the soul. And it is not, exactly, a sorrow that he is gone. We know that he is with us still, interceding for us before the Lord.

We know very well that now he is interior to us, not just exterior, as he perforce was in the flesh. Yet in him we had such a privilege. His kind is so utterly rare. He may be the one man most like Christ in the whole history of the papacy -- well, if I am wrong about that, there cannot have been many in whom nature had vested so many human gifts, to show forth the manifold sides of Christ the Lord, "in Whom and by Whom and with Whom were made all the things that were made." So many gifts endowed in Karol Wojtyla that all nature might stand back and say: "There was a man!"


Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Watch Now

New Android App

For your Android phone and tablet, download the FREE redesigned app, featuring CBSN, live 24/7 news.

The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App