I've heard a number of people say and write over the last few days about how much they find that the man meant to them, even if they were not Catholic or felt very distant from any remnant of Catholicism in their lives. People have wondered why and how that should be. I have been thinking a lot about it, myself, sitting with my own feeling of loss since we began our vigil.
The man, you see, was a sacrament. Catholic spirituality is all about this idea of "sacrament," and even though we wouldn't call this one of the "official" seven sacraments, that's still what he was. A sacrament is "a visible sign of an invisible reality." Water becomes a sign of grace. Bread and wine become a sign of Christ. And a "sign" here is something deep and real, and far beyond a mere symbol or metaphor. To be Pope is to be the Bishop of Rome. But to be the Bishop of Rome is to be not just an administrator and a teacher and all the other things that the Pope has to be. To be Pope is to be the living center of the Church: the "hub" to which all other local churches, and every individual in them, are "spokes," stretching out across the world. When we lost that hub, we lost that living connection we had to every other person in the Church, and even beyond the Church.
Now again, the Pope is a sacrament: he is the visible sign of the invisible reality of this communion we have with one another. So we didn't really lose this communion, because that invisible reality is really given to us by God, in the Holy Spirit. But we did lose the visible sign of that reality--Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II--and we have lived with that man providing this connection for each of us--wherever we are--for far too long for that loss to feel like anything but a shock.
When we lost John Paul, we lost something of our sense of each other, if only for a little bit. For there will be a new Bishop of Rome. There always is, whether elected like Karol by the Cardinals from among their own number, or whether like Fabian long ago, by the people of Rome who saw a dove land on the head of that weekend visitor, and who then decided that this was the man for them. But the reality is in the Spirit, who is with all of us, whether we acknowledge that or not. When we listen to the Spirit speaking to us, we'll find that the loss of John Paul takes on a different character, for we will see the true center of the Church resting in God, and we will hear John Paul's voice, still with us, but once again having returned to the chorus of our communion, the communion of the saints.