Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 3rd April 2005
I well remember the impact of the Popes visit to Britain in 1982. In those days John-Paul was at the height of his powers, a world Christian leader and statesman who had come to visit Roman Catholic Christians in Britain. Huge crowds turned out to welcome him, and in what he said he bore witness powerfully to the Easter faith which all Christians share. Like many Anglicans, I was moved by the Popes ecumenical visit to Liverpool with the famous journey along Hope Street from the Anglican to the Catholic Cathedral and by the pictures of the Pope kneeling to pray with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was delighted that a Bishop of Rome had come to my country and encouraged me in my faith as an English Christian. This was exactly what I needed and hoped for from the Bishop of Rome. After all, it was from Rome that Augustine of Canterbury had been sent by Pope Gregory to re-establish the Christian faith in England.
That experience of John-Pauls pastoral ministry has stayed with me in more than twenty years of ecumenical work, as I have worked and longed for deeper unity between Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians. Though we are not yet at the point where we can again share the eucharist together, and in some ways that point seems farther off than ever, there is so much we do share, including a recognition of the Christian life and witness of the senior bishops in both communions. I know how much many Roman Catholics appreciate the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and I, as an Anglican Christian, have on many occasions been grateful when Roman Catholic leaders have challenged me or given voice to just those things which concern me.
In recent days we have seen a very different kind of leadership being given by John Paul. The energy he has devoted for so many years to living well has been spent to the last in dying well, and in dying well John Paul has borne witness in another way to this Easter faith which all Christians share. If as Paul says, it is only for this life that we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19). What Paul goes on to say, in the very next breath, is, of course, that Christ has [indeed] been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. It is when we think about our own inevitable death that we can see most clearly how the resurrection of Jesus Christ, gives us hope - because it throws the difficult business of living and dying in this world into a whole new light. It is not that our life on earth, with all its problems and difficulties, becomes unimportant, merely the disposable prelude to real life beyond. Not at all: the good news of Easter is that living our life now becomes an adventure which does not end with death. Our spiritual alertness, our spiritual life, our spiritual identity (to which the name given in our baptism bears witness) cannot and will not be extinguished by the growing failure and weakness of our bodies. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day (2 Cor 4:16). It is at our baptism, that symbolic enactment of death and resurrection, that a process of growth into God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, begins. The resurrection of Jesus shows that this process of growth cannot and will not be ended with the death of our bodies.
This is authentic Christianity. This is what John Paul believed, and this is what he modelled for us right up to the end last night. This Easter life, life lived in the light of Jesus resurrection, is what he has been living, even as he passed through the valley of the shadow of death. The medical decisions that have been made for him have been made in the conviction that life is the precious gift of God, and of God alone, but that physical existence does not have to be preserved at any price. There comes a time when it is right to be allowed to fall asleep in the arms of God. And when that time comes, there is no need to fear, for the God who has loved us into life will in love take us back to himself again.
These days many people haven't much idea what a priest is for. John Paul, who, long before he became pope found his vocation as a priest, has reminded us that one of the traditional and most valued roles of the faithful priest has been to help people die well. Of course we know that for many people death is sordid, painful, untimely and unwelcome but even when it is so, the priest is there to hold this most agonising of human realities in the healing and reconciling light of Gods presence. This, I suggest is what John Paul, a priest to his fingertips, has done faithfully, by example, right to the end of his ministry. What we can do for him now is to remember him, and all those whose earthly life draws to a close, with love and thanksgiving, using the ancient words of commendation for a Christian, setting out on the next stage of their Easter journey into God:
O forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul,
In the name of God the Father Almighty who created thee.
In the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for thee.
In the name of the Holy Ghost who strengtheneth thee.
In communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels, and all the armies of the heavenly host.
May thy portion this day be peace, and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen