As I watched the introduction of Pope Francis to the world, I realized that we were really past John Paul II for the first time. As an on-again, off-again Catholic, I felt a lot of things as I watched the unexpected changing of the popes through the last month. None of it was the juvenile bullshit that amateur atheists spout about one scandal or another. Even if I became a fervent hedonist and atheist, I would still admire the Church as something ancient and beautiful. Its roots extend deep into the historical subsoil and I do not resent that there is bad mixed in with the good. Its history is much more beautiful than the atomized and hopelessly immoral landscape ahead of us that many modern intellectuals seem to be so eagerly contemplating.
This realization about John Paul II was not much more than nostalgia transforming into something else. Memory becoming history. As long as Benedict was pope, there was a connection to John Paul II and the world that he came from. Maybe I was realizing, once again, the growing distance between the world that I grew up in and the new world of post 9/11 America.
The terrorist attacks on September 11th had a similar effect on me. When the Soviet Union ended in 1991, that should have meant the end of the Cold War but, in my mind and perhaps in the minds of many others, the former defining division of the world that existed between US and USSR still served as a reference point. As my peers and I drifted dreamily through the 90s, going to college when it was still economically imaginable but letting credit cards creep almost unnoticed into our lives, our philosophical grounding was still in the Cold War era. We happily considered new avenues of thought and contemplated the end of history as all nations merged into one, happy semi-capitalistic orgy of materialism and non-aggression.
After September 11th, I realized that my world was forever changed. My eyes were opened to the fact that we were not all going to be so happy. The America that I had always been so proud of let me down when it invaded Iraq without provocation. The dirty deal between Bush, Obama and the bankers in 2008 and 2009 opened my eyes even more, to the point where I felt I was suffering that possibly mythical torture system in which your eyes were propped open with toothpicks. I didn’t want to see anymore.
The death of John Paul II had a similar effect. I watched the beautiful, unforgettable funeral more than once but was moved primarily by the realization that another remnant of that old world was gone. At the time, I didn’t know how to put the experience adequately into words. Watching Pope Francis emerge from the Vatican, I realized that memory was becoming history. With Benedict as Pope, it was easy to remember his predecessor and, from there, recall that nearly forgotten world of my youth.
As Pope Francis is quoted in the press and government drones circle over Americans, though, I am moved by loss and by the repeated recognition that childhood is over. Whenever I see the new pope, John Paul II and the world in which I grew up become a little more ossified. It becomes harder to recall what erroneously seemed to be a simpler time.
Another step into the future leaves the past farther behind. I suspect a similar but attenuated emotion will manifest itself when Benedict finally expires in his cloister. Memory becomes history. A young man turns 40. We are really post-John Paul II now.