Johnny Cash and Pope John Paul II share a common cord in their spiritual gift to the world. It's a deep and powerful connection between the two of them (though to my knowledge they never met), and a message that was given through their very lives.
Johnny Cash lived a dangerous life, and he was saved by a powerful grace. His redemption came largely by the intercession of a powerful woman, June Carter. She stood by his side when no one else could stand to be around him, and told him the things no one else had the guts to tell him. His greatest success came when he found the means to let grace and forgiveness into his life.
He had a long and successful career throughout the 60's and 70's, and well into the 80's, but by the early 90's had become largely ignored by his record company and the public. When Rick Rubin, producer of such artists as Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, approached him about making a bare-bones recording of his favourite songs, Johnny was interested. The two set to recording dozens of songs in Rick Rubin's living room. The first of these recordings became a surprisingly successful album, and was followed up by several more.
Somehow, these simple and deeply honest songs connected in a meaningful way with a group of people for whom “Country music” was a joke. Young people began to love Johnny Cash. By doing something he had always wanted to do, making a collection of songs featuring only himself and his guitar, he had become a father figure to a fatherless generation. By casting aside what was 'cool,' he had become relevant.
During the recording sessions of his second American Recordings album in 1996, Johnny began to feel the effects of what would eventually be misdiagnosed as Shy Drager's syndrome, and later diagnosed as autonomic neuropathy. His illness left him feeling greatly fatigued, and he would have to take frequent breaks during his recording sessions. Often these sessions consisted of Johnny sitting alone in his studio in Tennessee, and recording something for Rick Rubin to listen to and build upon, or vice versa.
There were a total of six albums in the American Recordings series, two of which were released posthumously. There is a significant difference in the quality of his voice between the first and the last of these albums. Because of his illness, his voice faltered. But strangely enough, it also became stronger. In his weakness, the significance of the songs he sung took on a greater strength.
In his youth in Poland, Karol Wojtyla faced Nazi persecution, and fought in his own way to defend the people and culture of his homeland. Later, as a young priest and bishop, he fought again to defend the persecuted against the oppressive hand of communism.
When Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978, he was considered young for a pope. He was a mere 58 years old. He eventually became the world's most traveled pope, visiting 129 countries throughout his pontificate. He had always been an active and sporting individual, often leading canoeing expeditions and hiking retreats for students when he was still a young priest. (He had been on a kayaking expedition when he found out that he'd been appointed to the office of bishop.)
In 1981, John Paul's life was also saved by the intercession of a powerful woman, when an assassin's gun placed four bullets in his body. Perhaps the greatest miracle, however, was not in the pontiff's life being spared, but in what happened when the pope and the assassin met again just over a year later.
John Paul held the hand that had fired a gun at his heart. The two men developed a friendship that remained. Forgiveness and Love trumped justice and revenge.
In 1984, he held the first 'World Youth Day' for Catholic young people, an event which has been held in various countries every 2 to 3 years ever since. Something in his personality and life's work connected meaningfully with young people. He did not condescend to them, but made them feel like a vital part of the Body of Christ.
He also became a key figure in the downfall of Communism in Europe. He fought relentlessly to uphold the dignity of the forgotten and the oppressed. He upheld a consistent ethic of human life, from the smallest life in the womb, to the sick, to the aged, and even to his enemies.
Soon, he would become the embodiment of his own teachings.
In the early 1990's, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He pressed on through physical pain and slurred speech, to deliver some of the most important messages of his pontificate. He became a living parable on the dignity of human life.
While John Paul struggled to speak, Johnny struggled to sing. Both of their voices rang loud and true.
Each one became a cultural enigma. There was nothing “cool” about John Paul II, but young people loved him. His life spoke something even more powerful than his words, and gave those words gravity. Eventually, it became “cool” to like Johnny Cash. Before that, and beyond that, there was and is an honest man and his message, informed by a life that sang of grace.
Johnny and John Paul inhabited the messages they brought to the world. When Johnny told a tale of regret and redemption, we believed it because he had lived it as a young man who had become acquainted with his own darkness, and as an old man who had fallen in love with the Light. When John Paul spoke of the dignity of life, we believed it because he had lived it as a young priest defending life against a Nazi regime, and as an aged pope living with a debilitating illness.
Both of these men stand as a testament to the dignity of life, and each one of them has had a profound affect upon my own. Life is rare and glorious. Life is worth sacrifice. Suffering is not the enemy of life. It is its companion, and when it comes to each of us, as it most certainly will, we must not rage against it. We can accept what has come to us, lift our voice, and sing our song in spite of it. Or perhaps, because of it. It is working to draw us closer to the One who made us. Somehow, in the singing of our song, and in the acceptance of our suffering, we can be a witness to a love that is beyond the stuff of earth.
“The Master of Life’s been good to me. He has given me strength to face past illnesses, and victory in the face of defeat. He has given me life and joy where others saw oblivion.... Life and love go on. Let the music play.” ~Johnny Cash
"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song." ~John Paul II