Friday, April 01, 2005

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine
For a country that's supposed to be all about a culture of life, we've moved rather swiftly into our second major deathwatch of the week, with news that Pope John Paul II, who was reportedly getting better just yesterday, is circling the drain today. They've even given him a feeding tube, apparently, which is, following two weeks of the Passion of Terri Schiavo, an irony too sharp to ponder for long.

(Digression: Ol' JP2, as his close friends like to call him, has worn the big hat for a long time--when he was elected in 1978, I was a freshman in college--young, hairy, and with my future in front of me. It's easy to forget how big a deal his election was--at the time, he was the first non-Italian pope in something like 400 years, and his credentials as a singer, poet, and mountain climber gave him what passed for rock-star status in his field. He visited Iowa in 1979, while I was a little baby DJ in extremely Catholic Dubuque, and as you might have expected, Elvis had nothing on JP2.)

Since JP2's health began to fail a few years ago, there's been speculation about who might be the next pope. Some people think it could be someone from the developing Catholic world, possibly a black African such as Francis Arinze of Nigeria. (I have to specify "black African" because three Africans h held the papacy before the year 500.) Of course, others think there might not be another pope at all.

In the year 1140, St. Malachy began having visions, and as a result of them, he assembled a prophecy regarding future popes of the Catholic Church. He listed 112 popes--and after that, he predicted the end of the world. Well, guess what? According to some interpreters of Malachy's list, JP2 is the last one. His death is thought to be the signal for the Rapture and the whole Doomsday show from the Book of Revelation. Other interpreters disagree, and think there will be one more pope before the celestial fertilizer hits the cosmic ventilator--although a few of them think that pope could be Jesus himself, returning to his rightful place as head of the church. You can even find a few people out on the Internet who think that Malachy's prophecies signal not the end of the world, but the end of only the Catholic Church. Of course, some of the same people who tout St. Malachy's record as papal seer also think Nostradamus had a hotline to the future--so caveat emptor.

Why does somebody who doesn't believe in God have any interest at all in this stuff? Because I'm human. Our fascination with end-of-the-world predictions probably grows in part from the knowledge that our own lives are finite, and so everything we see around us must be finite also. Just as knowledge of our own mortality is supposed to motivate us to make the best of the time we have, presumably knowledge of the world's mortality should do the same. But at the same time, if you know you're going to die, you don't take out any long-term magazine subscriptions--and so perhaps belief that you're living in the world's end-times has a way of excusing you from too much concern for the future. If you think you're going to be out of here pretty soon, how much responsibility will you feel for preserving the environment, promoting justice, fighting poverty and disease, or all the other things humankind is supposedly motivated to do? It would certainly explain the disinterest the religious right has in these issues--why paint a house that's going to be torn down tomorrow?

But the fact is that you can find evidence of people in every age who believed they were living in the end-times--and so I rather doubt that when JP2 breathes his last, the Four Horsemen will be unleashed. And I doubt even more strongly that this ride we're on has an ultimate destination. The point of this life, it seems to me, is not where we're going, but that we're going.

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