Dr. Farr on the Pope’s personal influence

John Paul II in Egypt

The influence of Pope John Paul II derives from his personal presence. As Newman explained: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us,  deeds inflame us.” Dr Farr reported the following at the outset of his speech Thursday evening: 

In the Spring of 2000 I had traveled to Egypt and Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world. Just weeks before, Pope John Paul II had been at Al Azhar as part of his Jubilee journey to the Middle East. During that trip he had visited key sites of Christian history, performed Masses for the dwindling numbers of Middle Eastern Catholics, and met with political and religious leaders. 

At the time, I was an American diplomat, director of the US State Department’s office of international religious freedom. I had gone to Cairo for a meeting with the head of Al Azhar University, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi and some of his advisors. When these men learned I was a Catholic, they were eager to tell me how things had gone when the Pope had been there. They had been apprehensive and, quite frankly, skeptical of the Pope. Serious tensions existed between Catholics and Muslims, and John Paul had been outspoken in his defense of religious liberty for  Christian minorities under siege in the Middle East. So they had decided to greet him politely but formally, remaining somewhat aloof until the meeting was over. 

When the Pope arrived that day, he was frail and stooped. He had difficulty walking because of the effects of a hip replacement which had not been completely successful, and because of Parkinson’s disease.

When he entered the room where the Muslim leaders awaited, John Paul was using a cane and was helped by an assistant. But when he saw his hosts, he began moving toward them alone, shuffling painfully but, as odd as it may seem, joyfully as well. One of the observers told me that the combination of suffering and good will quite overcame them. Their plans for aloofness melted away and they embraced the Pope. As they chatted, he spoke to them with respect and candor. “The Pope treated us with great dignity and honesty,” said this observer. “We did not agree on everything, but we had profound respect for him.”

Commitment to the dignity of every person, even amid suffering. Mutual respect, grounded in candor. These virtues were at the heart of the pontificate of John Paul the Great. They also represent, as it were, the beginnings of an answer to the question: why religious freedom? Why for everyone, of whatever place in life, in whatever nation or region, of whatever religion, or of none?

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