The suffering is ended, but the example is not gone. The long agony of an ailing Pope John Paul II -- an agony that provided a lesson in the bearing of burdens and the ultimate grace of sacrifice -- is now over, and the Catholic Church mourns his passing.
The non-Catholic world needs little urging to join that lament, because this pope did not confine his mission to Catholics. Pope John Paul II was conspicuous for his outreach, both in terms of religious ecumenism and apologies for past political and humanitarian lapses. His overtures to Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others were perhaps the most liberal facets of a very conservative papacy.
There is a special grief, in these days, for Catholics of Polish descent, in Buffalo and elsewhere, for whom this pope was an affirmation not just of faith but of culture. His unexpected election in 1978 as the first non-Italian pope since 1523 -- a decision that helped, through a string of events, to bring down the Soviet Union -- surprised and delighted Poles worldwide. In Buffalo, where then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was last welcomed in 1976 as one of the community's own, that pride still lingers though joy has turned now to sorrow.
There is speculation, of course, that his breakthrough election now opens the way for a "third world" papacy reflecting a shift in Catholic demographics from the northern to the southern hemispheres in recent years. Among the likely "papabili" is a conservative Nigerian cardinal who could become the first African pope since the death of Pope St. Gelasius I in 496. Or, other Vatican-watchers argue, a weakening of the faith in its traditional European base could mandate another Italian, or at least European, pope.
Only the College of Cardinals can determine that, in the conclave that now will choose a successor to this pope of the people. What is most likely, though, is that the next pope also will be conservative. John Paul II, after all, served for more than 26 years -- twice the length of the average papacy -- and personally appointed all but three of the 117 cardinals who will name his replacement.
The length of his tenure, which ironically followed the startlingly brief 33-day papacy of the first John Paul, also will ensure the lingering stamp of his personality on his Church. That personality drove this multilingual pontiff, especially after the failed assassination attempt of 1981, to take his message to the world -- a mission that took him to more than 100 countries. And that message was one of deep faith, adherence to traditional teachings in such matters as abortion and priestly celibacy, and of criticism that encompassed both the soul-denying evils of communism and the soul-corrupting evils of Western materialism.
His greatest failing, rooted in his idealization of a saintly priesthood, was his failure -- or perhaps the overall failure of the Vatican hierarchy -- to deal quickly, decisively and properly with allegations of abuse that tainted the Church for decades before erupting into scandal.
But he will be remembered longer for his strength of will and his insistence that mankind can aspire not only to goodness but to holiness. That will was most evident in his final days as his ills multiplied beyond his long-standing Parkinson's disease and his suffering became plainly evident. To the end, which came on the vigil of the Feast of Divine Mercy that he instituted, Pope John Paul II coupled teachings on the sanctity of life to his own silently eloquent example of sufferings offered for the good of the world.
His was a personality honed by adversity, the strength of a man who buried his family and then, at age 21, became a clandestine seminarian during the Nazi domination; the strength of a priest who rose to the rank of Cardinal of Krakow while his Church provided the backbone of opposition to the communist rulers of Poland; the strength of a pope who preached to and supported his countrymen as they struggled toward and achieved liberty once again.
He rests now, his mission finished. The Church now chooses anew, and the Church goes on -- without one of the most dramatically influential shepherds in its long, long history, but with all the lessons he leaves behind.