Sunday, April 03, 2005

John Paul II - Super Pope

They say life isn't at all like comic books. The real heroes are subtle and largely unnoticeable, the villains often get away with portraying themselves as heroes, and not everything comes out neatly at the issue's end. That and the heroes tend to die with alarming regularity, and don't come back after a few years with some kind of amazing - if usually cheesy - storyline to back up their resurrection.

Keeping that in mind, I was more than a little amused to learn, right after his death, that Pope John Paul II had a Marvel comic book of his life printed. I wonder who else might have had an issue #1 made of their life, up to a certain point, but the truth is that I'm almost afraid to find out. It might give me comic book envy.

Besides, I already have my own comic book of the late Pontiff in my own head.

I can hardly remember Panel One, and maybe I'm not really remembering this at all. I'm about seven years old, and suddenly there's a new Pope. His name is John Paul II, and he's from Poland, and that's really all I can make out of this frame.

Why is this so hazy, while other things from that time are as sharp and clear as a newly-printed TPB? Probably because we weren't Catholic - we weren't much of anything, religiously-speaking - so there wasn't much memorable discussion about it. I have greater memories of my mom's annoyance that I wanted Jimmy Carter to win in 1980 because we had the same first name.

As such, the death of the previous Pontiff was marked only by the appearance of the new one. It was much like the Zen Koan "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is" - Old Pope gave way to New Pope, and life went on.

The next Panel is more distinct: the Pope is being shot. I'm not sure if I remember seeing it on TV, the way I remember seeing it when President Reagan was shot (they took 'Tom & Jerry' off the air). But I do remember reading the next issue of Time magazine, which featured it on the cover under the headline "Why would anybody want to shoot the Pope?"

Why indeed?

As weird coincidences would have it, Ronald Reagan was shot the around the same time. Both of their would-be assassins were described as "disturbed men": the sort of people who - in a more perfect, comic book world - might have gained some weird powers, donned ridiculous costumes and taken to robbing banks or cooking up ineffective deathtraps for local superheroes. But, as we live in reality, and not a four-color funnybook, they got guns and tried to kill important people for reasons that were, for want of a better word, tawdry.

However, one thing has always stood with me, and let's call this Panel Three: it's the image of the Pontiff in a cell with the man who shot him, telling that man that he forgives him.

I don't think Ronald Reagan ever got within breathing space of John Hinkley Jr. for the rest of his life, and who would have blamed him? But here was the Pope, forgiving his would-be assassin, in person.

I seem to remember the Pope being bent over and looking the fellow in the eyes, his expression somber and parental, but also concerned. Meanwhile the other man is either returning an intense stare, or not daring to meet the old man's eyes. I don't remember which, and part of me doesn't want to go find out, for fear of ruining the ideal with the fascism of fact.

And while part me of opines that it was something he really had to do, him being the Pope and all, I don't think it was forgiveness by the numbers. I think he really, actually meant every word. So that Frame's stayed with me, over the years - clear as day and twice as sunny.

There have been times when I've loved the Pope for saying or doing something I wish others would have said or done. There have been times when I've hated him for standing up for things that I think are archaic and wrong-headed, just because they're "tradition" or "doctrinal."

But I have never lost my respect for him at that one, pivotal moment in his career, when he looked his assailant (arch-enemy?) in the face and said he could forgive him even that.

I'm not Catholic. I'm not even Christian. My form of spirituality praises forgiveness, but it also believes in the legitimacy of sacred rage, and says that there are times when revenge is just cosmic justice served with strong feelings.

There are people out there who could stand to have a lack of forgiveness dropped on their heads - preferably along with a blunt object, like a bus - and I don't begrudge myself a smile when it happens.

But remembering that Frame, I find myself aspiring to let go of anger, fear, hate and the desire to do right back unto that other what I had done unto me. I find myself inspired, against all reason and sense of self-preservation, to forgive.

If a large part of what a real hero does is to inspire others to be better than they are, then John Paul II was - whatever his shortcomings - a super hero>


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