Pope News & Views -- Commentary
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

Surprised by grief

The death of a rock-star pope brought a nonchalant Catholic to his knees


I still remember the moment when I heard that Elvis had died. I was lying on the couch in my parents’ living room, listening to the radio. Those were the days of Led Zeppelin and Hot Tuna for me. Yet the news hit me in a way I could only describe in the language of the day as a “tremor in the Force.” It surprised me. I had hardly ever paid attention to “the King.” But I am an American and Americans have no king but Elvis.

Lennon’s murder was sadder. This was someone who engaged us with his musical searching, this was the go-to Beatle for harsh honesty and hope, peace and “give me some truth.” The feast of the Immaculate Conception has been slightly clouded since then. A tiny wisp of sadness, insignificant in the presence of people who have suffered real loss on Christmas and Easter. If a dead rock star memory lingers on such a joyous occasion as the beginnings of our redemption, what must it be like when a spouse or child departs in a season of joy?

For this member of the blank generation there will after all only be one real version of “It’s a Wonderful World” -- Joey Ramone’s. Tupac, Biggie, Ginsberg, Belushi, Joe Strummer, Easy E., Keith Moon. These are people whose work touched me deeply, who had been part of the common heritage of my generation, who caught in perfect words and music exactly what we saw or who represented the same depth of energy, sensitivity, talent and insight for our children. I tell you I would feel a loss if Eminem should die, or if Aesop Rock should pass. Marilyn Manson’s death would affect me. But these are all just the passing tinges of sadness. No big deal. Par for the post-baby-boom course.

I had no such relationship with the rock star pope, John Paul II. Who paid attention to his travels? Not I. The pope’s glitz had little effect on me. His openness to the world, his love of every single human, his thirst for justice and human dignity were beautiful things. But how special were they really? That the rest of humanity should be surprised that a Catholic would act like this is a sad commentary on Catholics. That’s the way people are supposed to be -- that’s how the nuns taught us to be, useless servants that we are.

The death of John Paul II was therefore destined to register on my psyche as the death of any world leader. It was doubtful that I would regard his passing with anything close to the emotion I reserve for ex-Beatles.

Yet as the pope lay dying I started to crumble. My inside structures crashed. I stopped praying, I stopped meditating. A Lent that started out so fruitful evaporated. I cut off all conscious contact with God. It became an effort even to say the Our Father. It was a pure act of unemotional reason to say an Act of Contrition. I turned to the electronic golden calf for endless “Law & Order” episodes; I entered the anti-mandala of cyberspace. I turned intellectual, the sure sign a fall is upon me. I convinced myself that scholarship was delightful to look upon and good for obtaining wisdom. I dove into philosophy, linguistics, logic and biblical criticism. The neurons fired madly as if the ghosts of Neal Cassady and Ludwig Wittgenstein had entered my brain simultaneously. I didn’t shower for days. And I noticed this. I noticed the arc of my impending disaster. I’d been down this road before. It had nothing to do with the dying pope.

I read the coverage; I watched the coverage; I listened to the coverage. I stepped briefly out of the room of the 24/7 news cycle, returning to find that the pope had finally died. It was done. There was no noticeable impact, one way or the other, as my slide continued unabated toward a place I had not seen since the months after 9/11. Sharp and clever as I am, I did not make the connection.

Four days after his death and I finally recognized this nausea, this stone in the gut, this sickness that accompanied both of my divorces. I hadn’t felt this since my sister died. This was not loss, this was not sadness, this was no tremor in the Force; this was grief. But why? This was not for me the passing of “a much beloved pope.” It was not even the passing of a public figure whose work I admired.

It was, I think, more akin to the loss of a parent with whom you’d barely been on speaking terms for years; the loss of a father whose approval you longed for, but whose hard standards you could never quite live up to. Most of all, I think this was the grief of having been on the cusp of finally admitting the old man was right, that you finally understood, and then having him taken away before you could tell him.

He was the successor of St. Peter. And I take to heart what Karl Rahner said on numerous occasions -- that a Catholic must be willing to take the most unpalatable teachings of the church seriously ... must confront his or her own preconceived notions with those teachings and be willing to change. I am an American, and so like most Americans tend to raise some American value, be it American greatness or the First Amendment, to a presumption of truth against which any doctrine should be measured, as if Pilate nailed the Bill of Rights to the cross of Christ.

And this struggle was not about matters like priestly ordination, the vernacular Mass, the filioque or even same-sex marriage. This was a struggle about my day-to-day life, my morals, my values -- who to marry, what to teach the children. And, of course, the man I was struggling with was not my pastor, my confessor or my spiritual director. I never met this man. I’m not sure whether I ever even saw him at a distance. But this was the pope whose encyclicals were posted on the Web, whose teachings as the successor of Peter came directly into my intellectual orbit, without mediation, courtesy of The New York Times or National Catholic Reporter. It was mano a mano with pamphlets from the Paulist Press.

But it’s not about the intellect. It’s the will, stupid. And so true to form, it was not the phenomenological musings of Karol Wojtyla, or the reasoning of any document issuing from any congregation, or any writing of any theologian, that made me realize that a certain choice of silent obedience might be the first and best step. It was Leonard Cohen singing these lines from “That Don’t Make It Junk”:

I tried to love you my way
But I couldn’t make it hold
So I close the Book of Longing
And I do what I am told.

And thus after all those years it occurred to me that now was the time to finally shut up and listen. Listen for the still small voice, take the sacraments, pray, act in accordance with the moral laws as taught by my shepherds, the ones God has put down the street from me. Finally, sell this intellectual capital and go follow Jesus. For as a Carthusian once wrote, speaking of that un-American virtue of obedience, it is always Christ directly working on the soul, not the human whom we provisionally obey.

Humility does not come easy to a New Yorker, even when the stakes are eternal. But seeking strength in prayer, I girded myself in peace and serenity to finally turn myself in to the local shepherds.

And then he died.

I never knew how much he meant to me.

I never realized how much I wanted to come home on his watch.

J.J. Hayes-Rivas is a writer, poet and lawyer in Staten Island, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org