Of course, all men in all times have needed blessing, but we Americans living now may need it more passionately than some of our forefathers did. Because we do live out all our instants under the specter, not only of personal annihilation, but of the obliteration of everything. Tension builds, and builds. World-destroying weapons proliferate. Forces to bring them under control seem unavailable. Change rips custom. Our own destiny slips fishlike out of our own hands.America seems fragmented, with loud enmity everywhere, and with shallow fads and empty pursuings always being held up to us as the true wafer, the substance of what is really worthwhile. And our politicians, for the most part, are chameleons who turn the color of whatever rock they happen to be basking on -- switchers and dodgers who, if they can be said to serve "values" at all, serve only the most derivative of them; and thus are conservatives without mercy, liberals without brains, self-promoters, and self-righteous accusers of everything that moves. But we have longed for better than that.
Now into all this comes Pope John Paul, the friend of all sorts and conditions of men, "visiting" at the risk of his life. Any day, any instant, death could come down on him. And we Americans, who have seen other men of conviction mown down by lunatics, watch him with joy intermingled with panic -- any moment, just one gun-clutching hand out of the crowd -- a gigantic national crowd in which not a few of us have been driven and by confusion and agony. And yet on he comes, tough, no stranger to pain, nor any innocent so far as the knowledge of evil is concerned; and knowing, like him whose representative he is, what is in man. But John Paul moves to his business on a schedule that in itself is about as murderous as any gun. From early morning until late at night, on he comes, and we see this.
And we know, without even having to think about it, that he is not here to clarify some fine theological point, or run for reelection, or push the sale of his memoirs, but is here as the representative of God. And it is on this basis that we respond to him, and not only because he loves children, and is a scholar, athlete and all-around good man. His presence tells us that God is like him, only better, and this helps us to receive his blessing whether we have any theology to go with it or not. "A charismatic moment" -- and we watch with a kind of awe, love approaching as apocalypse does.
It lies deeper than words. For while we would hope, with John Paul, that oppression would cease, and that terrorists would stop murdering children, and that those who control the death-machines would find a way to get rid of them -- we also believe that these things are not likely to happen, and that life as we have known it may be doomed. And so we respond to this pilgrim with brotherly feeling, for we ourselves are pilgrims here too, who know what the yellow trumpets are for, and that "here we have no abiding city." And so John Paul, as the ambassador of that city not subject to destruction or change, awakens our oldest hopes, and is "leader of the West" in a far more profound sense than just being strong and representing the right values. For what is the West after all, but Christian civilization?
That phrase, "Christian civilization," has been much battered of late, and perhaps rightfully so, from having been misused to mean everything from Woodrow Wilson's private brand of foolishness, to "capitalism," to the vicious nativism that lifts its skirts against "foreigners" and Jews. And it should really be "Judeo-Christian civilization, anyway. But in either case, it does represent a greater and more humane reality than its misbirths or caricatures. For it was the Soviets who brought into widespread use the antiseptic term, "the West." But that's not what we are.
Blessings kindle faith, and that's what the pope's visit has done. We have need of that in a world where none of us knows whether the next moment will bring hosannas or a bullet in the brain. Blessings kindle faith, and so what we feel for this good pope not only unites us, but shows us that the underlying cause of unity has been here all along. For it was never our technology, economics or politics that bred the deeper hopes we have, but our faith, more piercing than ideologies, more ancient than empires, and more durable than this world. John Paul, by his triumphant visit, reminds us of all those things. And Washington welcomes him with love.