Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 11, 2005
Words seemed like thunder
Pope's Edmonton message still rings in the ears of the WCR founding editor
By DOUGLAS ROCHE
Special to the WCR
The words seemed like thunder.
"This poor South will judge the rich North."
For me, that warning, that prophecy, that cry was one of the defining moments of the pontificate of John Paul II.
The pope's plea for social justice, uttered with such vigour and steely determination, will live with me always.
His death has brought back to my mind the vividness of the scene.
It was Sept. 17, 1984, and the dawn had not even broken when my wife and I and our children piled into the station wagon and drove as close as possible to the Canadian Forces Base at Namao. But there was still a long way to walk to reach the site of the papal Mass.
Pope John Paul, then in the sixth year of what would turn out to be an extraordinarily long pontificate, was on a tour of Canada. We in Edmonton felt thrilled and privileged that the pope would come to "our city." Edmonton went all out for the charismatic leader from Poland, and it seemed to me, caught in the crush of the crowd, that the whole city was trying to see him at the Mass.
In those days, his stance was firm, his voice resonant, and when the time came for his homily it was clear by his tone that the pope had an important message.
He talked first of the Second Vatican Council's teaching that Christian ethics has a social dimension. The human person lives in a community, sharing with all hunger and thirst, sickness and misery. The "least of the brethren" cannot be isolated from the universal. Then he applied this theme to the widening gap between the wealthy North and the increasingly poorer South.
He cut to the core: "Yes, the South - becoming always poorer; and the North - becoming always richer." He excoriated the wealthy nations for piling up weapons and threatening each other so as, in the strange logic of the Cold War, not to destroy each other. One could feel the irony in the pope's words. And then he came to the passage that galvanized the attention of the crowd:
"In the light of Christ's words, this poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations - poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights - will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others."
The words seemed to hang over the throng. There was no clapping or cheering. The exuberant crowd had gone still. Everyone knew that the truth had been spoken.
The speech was, of course, widely reported. Some observers, following closely the pope's messages at every stop of the Canadian tour, considered this the high moment. It was impossible not to know exactly where the pope stood with respect to the gathering crises across the global arena.
The Cold War was at its peak. New tactical nuclear weapons had just been deployed in six European countries. The superpowers of the day, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, were refusing to negotiate. Fifty-seven nuclear weapons tests took place that year.
Huge amounts of money were being spent on arms while the plight of the poorest countries, discriminated against by the financial and trading regulations controlled by the North, went unattended. The UN had tried to define the requirements for a new economic order to right the imbalances, but global economic negotiations never got off the ground.
The governments of the North, though they apportioned small amounts of aid, simply did not care enough about the incredible suffering of the millions and millions of poor people caught up in the paralysis of the international systems.
Pope John Paul saw all this with the clarity of a radar beam. He responded to the massive social injustices with a searing message.
I do not doubt that the Edmonton message acted as a catalyst for many - inside and outside the Catholic Church. Many caring people heard this message and responded in their own ways, through donations, joining non-governmental organizations dedicated to development, even in some cases going to Third World countries themselves.
John Paul II certainly affected me on that day. I had already been in public life for many years and I recognized immediately that the pope had brilliantly focused on the duplicity of governments. The pope gave me a resolve to keep exposing this duplicity - by which governments always find the money for war, but plead that they can't afford to pay for the processes of development - and to make my own life an instrument of peace.
In the course of my work over the years, I met John Paul II several times. I always felt myself in the presence of a prophetic figure. But on that September morning in 1984 in Edmonton, he riveted me when he spoke of God's judgment on those who are rich and those who are not.
Douglas Roche, founding editor of the Western Catholic Reporter, is a retired senator and former member of Parliament. His most recent book is The Human Right to Peace.
Pope John Paul responded to the massive social injustices with a searing message.
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