John Paul's Final Journey Home
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 9, 2005
Karol Wojtyla’s mother died in 1928. The boy who was born in a small town near Krakow was only eight years old. By age twenty two, the whole of his immediate family had passed on, including his beloved father. With his fine mind and deep religious faith, he entered the priesthood where he reached the heights of which we were again reminded this week. Perhaps it gave him solace, too, in the face of so great a personal loss.
During the second of three waves of eastern European immigration to Canada, a Polish farmer, his wife Aniela and their ten children journied from the crowded farming community of Ropczyce, near Warsaw, to northeastern Alberta. Arriving in 1928, he died in January of 1929, leaving his family to provide for themselves on the homestead he had claimed.
They spoke neither French nor English and only the younger children received a rudimentary education. That included my father who reached grade eight before leaving school to work at the flour mill.
Aniela longed for her Polish homeland but that changed when her two brothers along with millions of other Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish, were killed by the Nazis. A devout Catholic, she prayed nightly. Her children, on the other hand, disdained the church. This callow response that a mother, lacking male reinforcement, could not check, perhaps anticipated the scandal that would later diminish the Catholic priesthood but it was also a shedding of anything to do with the ‘old country’ whose new world churches often became repositories of old world politics.
Later, my father met and married my mother who came from a nearby Ukrainian settlement. Though baptized in my mother’s Orthodox faith, my sister and I were given English and French names and encouraged in the ways of the ‘new country’. Even so, my adamantly Canadian father would have admired the Polish pope who, as the Vatican says, has now been called ‘home’.
After the flour mill, my father ran a service station and used-car lot before working as a custodian in an Edmonton school. Had he lived to witness the success of Solidarity and the man who helped bring about the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe, the ritual bottle of rye whisky, consumed with pepsi at the kitchen counter on a Friday night, would have flowed more generously than usual.
An old-school father of the strong, silent variety, he remained aloof from his young daughters’ feminism but didn’t live to see them become parents. Of course, it is easy to be liberal if you don’t have children. On the great social issues of our times, John Paul set the bar high. Without it, few will try much less succeed. Worse, with no bar or one set very low, everything falls.
John Paul demonstrated this in his life and in his death. For the boomer generation that’s facing its mortality, the bar has been set.
But the grace of even his passing could not pre-empt its devastating effect.
Weeping and praying, many of the faithful fell spontaneously to their knees when they heard the news. It isn’t difficult to understand why. When a loved one departs, the void they leave is palpable but when a figure of such immense authority and authenticity passes, a primordial fear, a collective apprehension of the unknown, overwhelms us. This is why children, who can’t logically understand such occasions, cry and why the psychic impact of losing a home, a family, or community cuts so deeply. It is also why millions gathered this week in Rome and around television screens everywhere. Paying their respects, celebrating a life, they found comfort in a shared experience which validates anew these universal, human imperatives.
I kept vigil when my father lay partially paralyzed by a stroke in an Edmonton hospital in 1982. At times he became agitated and would ask me to fetch his hat and coat so he could go home. When his heart gave out, he was placed on a respirator where he soon expired.
After the funeral, a cousin told me she had a dream the morning he died. My father was wearing his hat and coat, she said, and he told her he was going home.
Grieving the death of John Paul II is to grieve the loss of the father in all his archetypal, spiritual and earthly dimensions. God speed, Holy Father, your final journey home.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.