The death of Pope John Paul II marks the end of an era for the Catholic Church, and for the world. This Pope, whose death we mourn, is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever to serve the Apostolic See. He has been an immense figure in the history of the last decades of the twentieth century and his influence continued into the twenty-first, even in his old age and infirmity. His death saddens millions round the world and touches our lives here in the Midlands for he was the only Pope in history ever to come to our region! Many were there on Pentecost Sunday, 30 May 1982; they will be especially sad today. I am privileged to have personal memories of Pope John Paul. On a number of occasions I have had meals at his table. He was a wonderful host, taking trouble to speak to every guest and often able to recount some incident or moment from his visit to their country. There are not many places he did not visit, but Russia was one, to his sadness. On one occasion I had a ticket to see Lazio play in the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Then the invitation to the Papal table arrived. On sitting down I said: "Holy Father, I gave up a ticket to watch Lazio to come here." "You chose well!" he replied with a wide grin. As a young man Pope John Paul was athletic, and said to be a good goalkeeper. He was a man of great courage, risking life and limb to take part in underground theatre during the Nazi occupation of Poland. It was in the theatre that he first explored his convictions about the God-given dignity of every human person, no matter their circumstances or drama of their life. He proclaimed those convictions to his dying day: respect for life from conception to death; freedom, especially religious and political freedom, for every person; truth as the only way to freedom; justice as the only way to peace. He has championed these themes in the face of totalitarianism, communism, rampant capitalism and globalisation. He has been a champion of humanity, in every race, every culture, every religion, every place. No group of people have appealed to him more than young people. Even in his old age he drew vast crowds of youngsters to his World Youth Days. Often these were at least one hundred times bigger than most pop festivals. And there was a deep rapport between him and the youngsters. He, like them, had ideals for our society. He called them to greatness and so many responded. One of the most telling phases of his life was the last five years or so, when he struggled with ill health, immobility and dependence. So many would have quietly withdrawn from the public eye. Many wanted him to. But not this man. He was determined to live his life in God s hands. He had been given a task and he would complete it within God s timetable, not his own. And he firmly believed in the dignity and contribution of the elderly. Even to the last he was an inspiring teacher of humanity. His Master was Jesus Christ, the one in whom we are given the truth about ourselves. Now they are united. His waiting is over, his service is given, and he hears the words: "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and join in your Master s happiness." (Matthew 25.21).
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