Be not afraid!" John Paul II declared on his first day as pope in 1978, echoing the message of Christ to his disciples. With those three words, this extraordinary man offered people of all faiths comfort and courage in an uncertain world. Now, they are words to remember him by. Pope John Paul II died April 2 at the age of 84. He was buried Friday. "Pope John Paul II, a man of the Church, now belongs to the ages," said New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes.
The best of John Paul's legacy for New Orleans can be found in the countless people inspired by his personal appeal, his emphasis on human rights and peace, and his pioneering work for interfaith unity. Locally, the outpouring of memorial tributes has been profound for a city with the second-oldest Catholic diocese in the United States (established April 25, 1793). Our city enjoyed special ties to this pontiff. Former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs of New Orleans served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 1997 to 2001. In addition, New Orleans was one of eight cities on the pope's 1987 tour of the United States.
Our city was chosen for the "size and strength" of its Catholic education system, then-Archbishop Philip Hannan said at the time. That system includes Ursuline Academy, the nation's oldest Catholic girls school, and Xavier University, the only black Catholic university in the United States. The pope's stop here was billed as a three-day pastoral visit, but tens of thousands of youths cheered him as if he were a rock star, evoking the earlier Time magazine headline, "John Paul, Superstar."
John Paul addressed a rally of 60,000 young people in the Superdome. He also delivered an outdoor Mass for 300,000 worshippers at the University of New Orleans' Lakefront campus. An aspiring theater actor before his call to the priesthood as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, the pope delighted New Orleans with his wisdom and humor. (He was photographed trying on a feathered Mardi Gras mask.)
He even surprised himself. Over lunch at Hannan's residence, the pope was still marveling over the "wildly enthusiastic" crowd of 60,000 people who came to see him at a previous stop in Columbia, S.C. -- the majority of whom were Southern Baptists, Oscar Lipscomb, the archbishop of Mobile, Ala., later wrote.
John Paul's accomplishments for interfaith unity will resonate with New Orleans' diverse population for years to come. He built bridges to Jews and Muslims, apologizing for both the Church's history of anti-Semitism and for the Crusades, respectively. He called for a Palestinian homeland, and he denounced the war in Iraq. He also made a public appeal for calm and the protection of Muslim families during the fearful days following 9/11.
The day after John Paul's death, Hughes conducted a special Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, combining memorial services for the pontiff and for local victims of crime and violence. Hughes reminded the standing-room-only crowd of the pope's courageous response following the attempt on his life in 1981. Who among us could forgive a professional assassin for shooting us in the stomach? John Paul did. He visited the deranged man in prison, prayed with him, comforted him and kept their conversation confidential.
The pope's courage and compassion are reflected in the Church's "Restorative Justice" project in Louisiana, which seeks redress for crime victims and acknowledgment of fault from offenders. It is the kind of thoughtful policy that we have said should be extended to victims of priestly sexual abuse. ("A Chance for Justice," June 11, 2002). Other challenges facing the Church include its opposition to contraception -- a policy that is difficult to reconcile with the need for family planning among the world's poorest people and arguably contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Although John Paul stands tall in the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the Church's conservative stands on some social issues and the corrosive effects of the priest sex-abuse scandals will be the more controversial parts of his legacy.
Ours is a poor state, and the Church is feeling that strain. Since the pope's visit in 1987, the eight parishes covered by the New Orleans Archdiocese have lost nearly 78,000 residents. According to its own figures, the archdiocese has lost nearly 45,000 parishioners during the same period. There are 121 fewer priests than when John Paul visited. Facing numbers like these in communities around the world, the Church may debate its policies prohibiting women priests and married priests. Tradition mandates that the election of a pope's successor begin no sooner than 15 days after his death. The College of Cardinals will begin the process April 18. As the world waits for a new pope, we should follow John Paul's example and engage in constructive discussions on how the interfaith community can overcome cultural and theological differences to help those who most need us. We should not forget the words with which John Paul II greeted us in 1978: Be not afraid.