In the death of Pope John Paul II, the freedom fighter, the defender of life, the one who asked forgiveness and who forgave, the man who sought daily that his life be a reflection of the life of Christ, we are diminished and we are exalted. He was great, because he stood like a rock in the stormwaves of the end of the second millenium, sometimes submerged in the froth of rhetoric and disapproval but never washed away. He was great, because he placed his hope in his Lord and he garnered his strength from the Gospel: he was great, because he never attributed greatness to himself but to God alone. If the cardinals have among their number a man who can be as great, let the white smoke rise quickly over their decision to elevate that man. If they have no one as great to choose, let God lead them to choose the one who will at least not detract from the greatness of his predecessor.
In my time I've criticized Catholicism for its resistance to change - the changes I considered good, at any rate, such as the ordination of Godly women. I'm Episcopalian now because Catholicism was hard bread for my husband; I wanted to worship with him, even if it meant accepting a doctrine different from the one under which I was raised, and my criticisms made my decision easier. But today I say: Bravo, John Paul, for not listening to my kind. Change for the sake of "evolving standards of decency" or a "modern understanding" of good is a dangerous matter.
I believe that the Catholic church may eventually allow women to become priests. They may, on the other hand, decide to allow non-celibate - married - men to become priests, though I think the women have a better chance, sooner. But to embrace either of these changes because of a social evolution encompassing only forty-odd years, in an institution spanning two millenia and with roots much older, would have been foolhardy; there's no hurry. Conservative? Yes, John Paul was conservative, and so should any Pope be. The Holy See should not innovate; it should preserve the heart of the faith intact, and move as slowly and inexorably as a glacier to change its underlying landscape.
That his death follows so closely on the death of Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo is a powerful evocation of John Paul's papal message that we are not to be afraid. Calls to kill Terri, in the guise of "letting her die with dignity," "giving her release," or "fulfilling her wishes," were rooted in fear: our fear of helplessness, of uselessness, of indignity exposed, of mysterious suffering we cannot quantify that can only be answered by death. John Paul's message, the message of his words illustrated by his long, difficult, private life made public for our edification, is that when we place our trust in God, we may not be spared suffering, but we will surely be given the resources to withstand it.
More than that: to triumph over it, even if the world sees only defeat.