"St. Andrew's or St. Bernadette's?" asked the stranger on the train. "St. Andrew's," I replied. Part of the last generation of Americans who grew up cocooned by Catholicism, the two of us nodded in mutual understanding. Our world was our parish. Our teachers were nuns.
Our lives were simple: confessing minor sins on Saturday afternoons to the faceless silhouette behind the screen, attending an incomprehensible Latin mass on Sunday mornings with the priest's back turned to the pews. Mantilla in my pocket, catechism on my desk. Form as much as faith.
It was a simpler time, with only one answer for each question, unless you happened to know some Jesuits. The world today is more complex and contradictory, and it is fitting that the man who oversaw the Catholic Church during these years was complex and contradictory as well.
John Paul II was the first pope of the celebrity age, his face as recognizable as that of any movie star, his mass masses a cross between the Sermon on the Mount and a Rolling Stones concert. A man of God who was a jock, a theologian who was quick with a quip: He appeared to be all things to all people, even in death.
But the contradictions are deeper, more enduring and more divisive than that. This was a man who expressed "solicitous care" for divorced Catholics but refused to allow those who remarried to receive the eucharist. He wrote of the "equal dignity and responsibility of women with men" but would not even discuss the question of women's ordination. He advocated "responsible fertility" but continued a ban on contraception. He spoke the language of modernity fluently but capped it with the unyielding conclusions of the past.
He knew it was possible to embrace change and yet to cleave to the essential teachings of Christ. Pope John XXIII did so when the Second Vatican Council dragged the Catholicism of my childhood into the modern age, changing the mass to a language the congregation could understand, turning the priests toward the people, not just at the altar but in other essential ways as well.
In the fashion of the true leader, that pope let the church prosper from the ground up, empowering parishes to engage personally with parishioners. By contrast, this pope was painfully hierarchical. While he was shutting down discussions of the celibacy requirements, he ignored the crisis of sex abuse among the clergy that tarnished the church. The greatest social-welfare group on Earth, which followed its founder by feeding the hungry and providing solace for the sick, instead became known as a breeding ground for pedophiles.
This pope did great things. He helped bring down communism, spoke out against the war in Iraq and the death penalty and was a model for bearing infirmity with courage. Because he was personally engaging, he appeared to engage with ordinary people. But this was illusory. It is demoralizing to feel that the voice of the soul is not heard. It is doubly demoralizing to feel unacknowledged by one whose calling card is supposed to be human connection.
Perhaps the most telling thing about his papacy is that he has been mourned by millions who unapologetically acted contrary to his directives. Women using birth control, couples living openly together, conservatives who support capital punishment, liberals who support legal abortion: So many have spoken of their admiration for John Paul II even as they defy him in their daily lives.
This brings to mind one tenet of the Catholic intellectual tradition: that the insistence on a law that is clearly not enforceable risks contempt for all laws.
It also throws into powerful relief his greatest gift. First principles: It was his unwavering and particularly vivid personal relationship with God. When the pope appeared to be channeling Leviticus, standing for orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy's sake, he appeared less like a spiritual leader and more like an ecclesiastical politician, seeing only the trees and not the forest. But when he stood testament to God's goodness in man, he shone like the sun. His successor might keep that in mind.