The pope's plane was heading to the Ivory Coast from Togo on a journey that was to end that evening in Cameroon. In the press section, my friend Victor Simpson of the Associated Press had just read through the thick packet of speeches that John Paul II was to give on that long August day.
With some alarm, Victor addressed an urgent question to his colleagues. "What are we going to write about?" he asked. "There's nothing but religion here."
Victor, one of the best Vatican correspondents, was joking not about the pope but about journalism's foibles. All of us who covered papal journeys knew our editors were most interested in this holy man when he spoke about politics -- or if he said anything even vaguely related to sex. But if John Paul had the nerve to speak "only" about religion, well, for goodness' sake, that wouldn't make any news at all.
And so it is with all our efforts to grapple with the pope's passing. Of course we must discuss John Paul's role in the fall of communism, his embrace of human rights and the labor movement, his opposition to abortion, the death penalty, contraception and euthanasia, his insistence on enforcing a traditionalist theology and preserving an all-male celibate priesthood.
But the hardest thing to convey may be the "nothing but religion here" idea that lay at the heart of his papacy. If John Paul stood for one large thing, it was primacy of the spiritual over the material. He used thoroughly modern methods, but his teachings were in tension with modernity. Almost everyone has thus found something to praise and something to criticize about this man, because all of us embrace some aspects of the modern world while also worrying about modernity's spiritual black holes. We all agreed with John Paul some of the time.
Dislike the alienating aspects of modern capitalism? So did the pope. During a visit in the mid-1980s to Ciudad Guayana, an isolated industrial town in eastern Venezuela, the pope said workers should be protected from "dehumanizing" conditions. He attacked an "ideology of technology" that "imposed the primacy of matter over spirit, of things over the human person." That's why he could demand, as he did in Ecuador, that none could feel "tranquil" while "there is a child without school, a family without a home, a worker without a job, an ill or elderly person without adequate attention."
But John Paul equally opposed the "dialectical and historical materialism" at the heart of Marxism because it dismissed religion as "a kind of idealistic illusion." For him, materialism was the illusion. He thus opposed efforts to politicize the person of Christ, to depict him as "a political activist, as a fighter against Roman domination and the authorities, and even as someone involved in the class struggle." Speaking to the Latin American bishops in Mexico in 1979, John Paul insisted that "the conception of Jesus as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive from Nazareth, does not tally" with the church's teaching.
There were times during his travels when the pope seemed more at home with the deep spirituality of poor non-Christians in the Third World than with the affluent, modernized Christians of the West. During a 1986 visit, he spoke of India as "a religious nation generously committed to a spiritual pilgrimage," a place of "great simplicity, asceticism and renunciation" with the mission "to offer the world a spiritual vision of man." He said of India's ascetic hero: "Gandhi was much more Christian than many people who say they are Christians."
His sympathies extended to Africans who followed traditional beliefs about the divinity of nature. During that 1985 visit to Togo, he told a group of animist priests: "Nature, exuberant and splendid in this place of forests and lakes, impregnates spirits and hearts with its mystery and orients them spontaneously toward the mystery of He who is the author of life." John Paul, the doctrinal conservative, was not selling out his Christian faith. But he did seem to be leading a worldwide popular alliance in rebellion against modernity's denial of the sacred.
At a 1986 Mass, the Pope declared that "Easter in the church means the passage to Eternal Life that comes from God and is life in God. No promised land on this earth can assure such a liberty, such a life."
Those of us still on "this earth," often struggling for the faith that so animated John Paul, will inevitably debate the meaning of his legacy in the secular terms that so dominate our times. We should try to remember that these were not the terms on which he lived his life.