The other night as Pope John Paul II was flying across the Atlantic back home to Rome, my husband and I, exhausted from another long weekend of living, wondered why people like him so much.
“Is it because he follows the rules,” I asked, “like Colin Powell? If he ever sins, he does it privately.”
My husband said, “He’s just a decent guy. That’s all there is to it. The pope and Colin Powell - they don’t shout or scream or call people names. And their opinions are all kind of average opinions.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Who isn’t for world peace?”
We laughed. Does anyone hear the pope when he calls for peace?
Do any Serbians lay down their arms? Do any terrorists in Paris defuse their bombs? Do warring tribes in Rwanda and Burundi look at each other sheepishly and say, “Uh, listen, the pope has suggested peace, and don’t you think we ought to comply?”
Most people have no control over world peace. Zilch. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to support. What would people do if the pope called for household peace? Or workplace peace? Or the reconciliation of former friends?
How many of the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the pope on his five-day trip to the United States went home and made even a tiny amount of peace?
Then my husband said, “It’s very hard to find people to admire anymore. The pope is sort of an obvious choice.”
If you don’t think too hard about him.
My husband and I know and love men who can no longer administer the Catholic sacraments because they chose to love women. We know men who are not welcome at Communion because they choose to love men.
And we know women who long to become priests but cannot because they were born with incorrect chromosomes.
Still, the pope seems like a decent guy and worthy of some admiration simply because he does not try to get in your face. He does not bad-mouth anyone like Bob Dole does or use filthy words like Howard Stern does.
He is as pleasantly bland as lukewarm potato soup.
Nor has he been caught in a baldfaced lie or cheating on his wife. He has never promised anything he failed to deliver except, perhaps, everlasting happiness to his faithful. And if they fail to find it, we’ll never know.
Intrigued by the pope’s popularity, my husband and I tried to make a list of public people we most admired. It was slow going. Mario Cuomo. Jay Leno. Arthur Ashe.
As our list grew longer - Bryant Gumbel, Saul Alinsky, Lillian Hellman - we felt a little queasy about the names on it. We discovered we could admire these people only for portions of their personalities.
Almost all of them had had failures of courage or honesty or kindness or grace, failures much like our own.
We decided it’s possible to admire someone wholeheartedly only if you don’t know him very well. That’s why popes and astronauts and generals appear on so many lists.
They seem strong. They seem in control. They seem decent. And we have no clue what they actually do on a day-to-day basis.
Then I said, “One other thing is true, you know: It’s easiest to admire people who don’t say too much.” My husband added: “Or who say the same thing over and over.” Like calling for world peace.
Talk too much about too many things, and everyone will find a reason to knock you off their list.
With that, I’ll shut up.