Catholics in Arlington gathered for Mass at churches throughout the county during the weekend as Pope John Paul II died in Rome. On Friday, Bishop Paul Loverde of the Arlington Diocese celebrated Mass for the ailing 84-year-old pontiff at St. Thomas Moore Cathedral and again on Saturday evening and Sunday morning after his death. Loverde, who had met with the Pope several times, said his legacy will be one of human kindness and a respect for life.
"Pope John Paul II has strenuously, unfailingly and eloquently upheld the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death," Loverde said. "His profound, indeed, mystical spiritual life, his pastoral visits to the Diocese of Rome and throughout the world, his brilliant intellect coupled with his welcoming personality, his passionate defense of the truth, his ability to draw closer to Christ peoples of every culture and nation, especially the young, and his patient and persevering acceptance of the cross of physical limitation, infirmity and suffering, especially in these latter years of his pontificate: this only begins to describe the immense influence this Holy Father has had since 1978."
The ailing 84-year-old pontiff, according to statements from the Vatican, slipped in and out of consciousness Saturday and developed a high fever. He died Saturday evening around 9:30 p.m. Rome time in his apartment. The pope had suffered from Parkinson's disease for years. Outside, the faithful filled St. Peter's Square in a vigil.
"THIS IS REALLY the first pope that I've known since I was a young man," said Steve Luteran, executive director of Catholic Charities in Arlington. "I've admired him as a champion of the poor and the underprivileged and for his teachings in Catholic social doctrine."
Luteran added the pope's legacy is grounded in his respect for life, his compassion for others and strong beliefs in humanity.
"He spoke out vehemently for the dignity of people," Luteran said. "He taught that we are all responsible for one another and promoted a culture of life around the world. He will be sorely missed. This is a difficult time for the church."
Among the pope's many strengths, according to Dr. Brian M. Doyle — an assistant professor at Marymount University with a Ph. D in Theology— was his ability to embrace modern media, rarely shying away from television cameras and being in the public eye.
"He was media savvy and he took advantage of the media to get the word across," Doyle, a resident of Arlington said.
As a world leader, the pope will also be remembered for efforts to strengthen ties with people of other cultures and faiths. An outspoken opponent of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories and of the war in Iraq, he gained great respect among Muslims.
"There is a great sense of loss in our community," Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque said. "This was a papacy that came at a critical point in relations between the west, as it is signified by Christianity, and the Muslim world."
Abdul-Malik added that the pope's involvement with the United Nations on the question of Israeli Palestinian relations was important to many of the Muslim faith.
"It was a relief to us to have a pope who could speak with such a clear voice for the rights of the oppressed," he said.
The pope's meetings in 1996 and 1998 with Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammed, founder of the Nation of Islam, he added, also helped to foster ties between the church and Muslims in the United States.
"John Paul II realized that with the growth of Islam, Judaism and other religions, outreach to people of other religions is critical," Doyle said.
With the coming of a new pope, Doyle said he expects the church may undergo some changes but a radical transformation is not likely.
"It's hard to know whether the pope that is elected will be progressive or traditional," Doyle said. "Things never move quickly in the church. It's not like when there's a new president and everyone expects things to change over night."
Doyle, a Catholic, saw the pope last in 1995 during a visit to Baltimore. Father Jack Peterson, chaplain and director of Marymount's campus ministry, had a chance to meet the pontiff shortly after graduating from college. He shook the pope's hand.
"It was an incredibly powerful experience," he said. "If I hadn't been shoved up against a railing at that moment, I might have fallen to my knees."
Peterson offered Mass in honor of the pope at Marymount's chapel Monday afternoon.
The estimated 1 billion Catholic followers across the globe will have a new pontiff in the coming weeks. Catholic doctrine dictates the College of Cardinals, the interim body governing the church, must meet in the next 20 days to elect the pope's successor. Born in Poland, John Paul II was the first Pope elected from outside Italy in 450 years.
ACCORDING TO Soren Johnson, spokesman for the diocese, the Arlington Diocese's web site, www.arlingtondiocese.org is getting thousands of hits from people looking for information related to the pope's death. An on-line condolence book is available at the site and mourners can leave messages.