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Notes & Comments – A Man of Peace

4 The Review of Religions – May 2005 The papacy has seen a lot since the first pope1, St Peter (circa 32 CE). His characteristics as identified by Jesus(as) symbolised the role of a spiritual leader. He referred to him saying, ‘…thou art [Cephas] Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18) In this he identified a key characteristic for the holder of such an august office that was to be tasked with the challenge of taking forward the teachings of J e s u s( a s ). Over the centuries Christian powers have passed through many stages. In Rome itself they were severely persecuted for their beliefs. The resilience of the Christians carried them through the testing period that lasted until the fourth century. They ultimately rose to power and the papacy has since itself been in the seat of power when, sadly, others were persecuted for their religious beliefs also. In more recent times the papacy has swung back to focus on peace and to promote harmony, and His Holiness Pope John Paul II was certainly a keen advocate for extending the hand of peace on many occasions. He was the first non-Italian pope since the time of Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) who was Dutch. Pope Adrian VI was a former inquisitor-general in Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Léon although he is also noted for his efforts to reform the Papal Court and eliminate corruption. H o w e v e r, his short papacy was beset by opposition to reform from within and this restricted his ability to drive forward any change of note. His monument in Rome reflects the challenge that Co m m e n t s &Notes A Man of Peace 5The Review of Religions – May 2005 he faced and its inscription reads, ‘Even the best of men may be born in times unsuited to their v i r t u e s . ’ His holiness Pope John Paul II h o w e v e r, was fortunately more successful. His visit to Communist Poland in 1979, just one year after his election, played a key role in drawing people together and inspired them to continue their efforts to free the country from Communism; and this concern for humanity was echoed throughout his life. His appointment of numerous non- Italian cardinals (especially in Africa), his visit to the Holy Land in 2000 and the fact that he was the first pope to visit a mosque (the Umayyad mosque in Damascus in 2001) are all testi- mony to his endeavour to play an active part in changing the outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes his views sparked c o n t r o v e r s y, as he remained firm in his views on issues such as abortion, women priests and h o m o s e x u a l i t y. In that he reflect- ed firmness of character by not yielding to contemporary opinion – a move that was respected by others including Christians from d i fferent denominations that were also under pressure to give way to modern ‘liberalism’. In this respect he should be commended for having the courage and conviction not to yield simply because he could upset popular opinion. He was a man of principles. He also spoke against war and was outspoken against the recent war in Iraq and was open about his support for a homeland for the Palestinians and for all neighbouring states to have a right to live in peace. This highlighted his concern for humanity and the need for solu- tions to be reached without the need for bloodshed. He was critical of the excesses of capitalism as well as the spread of atheism and was especially con- cerned at the misuse of religious office for political purposes. In this regard he made clear his disapproval of Nicaraguan bishops of the so-called ‘popular church’ that was becoming ever more involved in politics. He was also passionate about relieving world NOTES AND COMMENTS p o v e r t y, but again without recourse to radical politics. His personal appeal was self- evident and wherever he would go thousands if not millions would flock to see him. The 1981 assassination attempt did not deter his zeal to get close to his people and this served to strengthen the link between the Catholic world and its spiritual head. The impact he had on the lives of a billion or so Catholics is plain to see by the sheer numbers that decided to go to Rome personally to pay their respects. Over 5 million made it to Rome whilst billions worldwide joined them in spirit by following the funeral live on television. This was clearly a man who had connected with his people in a way that made them feel a part of a worldwide family. He was clearly a Pope who will be missed by each and every one of them. Over 200 world leaders were also present for his funeral on April 2, leaders such as Mugabe, Chirac, Syrian president Assad, Israeli president Kastav, Bush and Blair. It is indeed ironic that over the years many of them had ignored his call for peace and one wonders what he would have said to them if they had gathered before him during his lifetime. One can certainly hope that they can learn from his example of forgiveness and patience – for the Pope paid a special visit to the man who sought to kill him in 1981, and f o rgave him. What a diff e r e n t world it would be if they – and the world at large – could follow his noble example, for the sake of peace. His life was one of eagerness to keep the spirit of religion alive and for that he will be missed by us all. Surely to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return. (Holy Qur’an Ch.2: V.157) Fareed Ahmad – UK 1. It should be noted that whilst for the Papacy Peter was considered the first Pope, there are many traditions that cite James as the successor to Jesus(as) in Jerusalem. 6 NOTES AND COMMENTS The Review of Religions – May 2005