Two men made the news this week. Their stories are ones of contrast, the contrast we find often in today's world. One man chose to speak about the importance of all human life and its dignity; the other was responsbile for fueling a hatred that ended up in the taking of thousands of innocent human lives. What causes such contrast in persons? We can never really enter into the mind and heart of anyone else; we can only see the results of their behavior(s). Judgments will be made about their lives and why they said or did what they said or did. Some will have thoughts of praise for either of them and others thoughts of criticism or condemnation.
The first man was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice in Poland. Christened Karol Josef Wojtyla he would grow up in a country that knew tyranny and oppression first under the Nazis and then under the Polish communist state. He would lose his mother when he was only eight years of age; an elder sister died in infancy before he was born; his older brother became a physician but died from scarlet fever. He was reared by his father who later died in 1941 leaving the young man (at age 20) without any other family. He became a poet and playwright and studied languages at the university in Krakow until it was closed by the Nazis in 1939.
John Paul II would eventually lead the Church for over 26 years becoming one of the most influential men ever to sit in the Chair of Peter. He would travel extensively (visiting 129 countries), write numerous encyclicals and become a key figure in the demise of communism in eastern Europe. The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said: The collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.
This past week the Church recognized his life and virtues by raising him to the ranks of the blessed in a beatification ceremony presided over by his successor Pope Benedict XVI. He may now be revered by the faithful as Blessed John Paul II . John Paul II had his critics from both within and without of the Church. Within the Church he was seen by some as being too conservative and not allowing the spirit of the Second Vatican Council to be fully implemented. Regardless of these criticisms his piety and personal holiness were well regarded and his championing of human rights and the dignity of the human person is well documented and appreciated.
On March 10, 1957 a child was born to a wealthy and influential family in Saudi Arabia. The young man whose name was Osama bin Laden was a devout and religious young man, mild mannered and soft spoken. He studied economics and business administration and was involved in a variey of charitable works. Like Karol Wojtyla, he too was a poet. Somewhere along the line as he grew older he began to see what he considered the need to impose a very strict approach to Sharia (Muslim) law. He would finally take this approach to its extreme and would end up being isolated from his home in Saudi Arabia. He began to recruit others to his way of thinking from which would grow a network of followers pledged to him and to his extreme ways. He developed an animosity for four particular "enemies" (in his thinking): the State of Israel, Shia Muslims, heretics, and the United States of America.
Through his teaching and training of others he would end up being responsbile for the death of thousands of innocent people through various terrorist attacks on a number of places and peoples, the most glaring being the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 where targets were struck in New York City and Washington.
There we have a tale of two men: one who chose life and proclamation of the dignity of all human life and the other who chose violence as a means of carrying out his extreme views. We can see why Karol Wojtyla arrived at his views through his study of Scripture and the following of Jesus Christ. Why did bin Laden choose the path he chose? His followers, who will certainly consider him a martyr, would say he was following his beliefs in the purity of Islam and how it must be the way the world should go. I would wonder, however, how his approach to life (and the taking of human life) is consonant with the message of the Qu'ran where we read in Surah 25:
And the servants of Allah, Most Gracious, are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, "Peace!" (25:63); or
Those who invoke not, with Allah, any other god, nor slay such life as Allah has made sacred except for just cause...and any that does this (not only) merits punishment. (25:68); or
...The penalty on the Day of Judgment will be doubled to him, and he will dwell therein in ignominy. (25:69); or
Unless he repents, believes and works righteous deeds, for Allah will change the evil of such persons into good, and Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (25:70)
The world can rightfully judge the actions of Osama bin Laden as violent and cruel resulting in the loss of many human lives. The final judgment of his life remains, however, not with us but with God. We may feel relief that a "most wanted criminal" has been brought to justice but we can also be assured that this will not necessarily end terrorism or actions of such violence against others. We can only hope for the peace that John Paul II so often would pray for. Let me share a prayerful thought written by Father John Walsh of Maryknoll:
Let us become lovers of God and enablers, enabling people to encounter a loving, liberating God. Let us grow as co-seekers of the trust with others and reconcilers, conscious of our own trespasses and forgivers of our enemies. Let us be promoters of life in all stages and celebrators, giving voice to the love, joy, and longing and aspirations of peace makers.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us and pray that the peace so close to your own heart may descend upon the peoples of the world.