Shoes of a Fisherman

John J. Hopkins Apr. 17, 2005, 4:41am

In 1968, 10 years before the election of John Paul II, Anthony Quinn starred in the film, “The Shoes of a Fisherman.”

Based on a best seller by Morris West, it told the story of an obscure Russian archbishop who is suddenly freed after 20 years in a Siberian labor camp. Archbishop Kiril Lakota next finds himself in Rome, greeted and welcomed by the Pope and elevated to Cardinal.

The Pope dies, and after a series of complicated events this non-Italian from an Iron Curtain country is elected the Holy Father.

The story progresses, and the new Pope is called upon to intervene in worldly matters. His call for morality in the affairs of state, while initially ignored, is eventually heeded, and a potential World War III is avoided.

In an eery segment of life imitating art, 10 years later, Karol Wojtyla, the Cardinal from Poland whose life was tempered by the bitter occupation of Nazism and Communism, was elected the first non-Italian Pope in more than 400 years.

As the world took time to reflect, to mourn and honor the life of John Paul II this week past, I was struck by the impact of his 26 years upon the world stage, and in particular the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

No one can dispute that the Polish shipyard union Solidarity began the domino effect that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Equally beyond dispute is the influence of the Papal visit to Poland in 1979 supporting Lech Welsa and the Union in its time of peril.

Solidarity was wavering, the fire of political freedom was down to a smoldering ember. The very real and present danger of harsh and even fatal reprisals to those who spoke out was omnipresent.

By the power of the simple phrase, "Be not afraid," John Paul II gave hope to the forces of change, courage to the timid and strength to the weak. The movement continued, the Union grew and Poland was eventually free. The blessing of freedom spread throughout Europe, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Revering the memory of a life well lived certainly has its place, but what is the relevance to the legal, political and journalistic community in Southwestern Illinois? In the year 2005?

In a diverse and pluralistic society, what lesson does the secular world take from the words of this religious leader?

His simple phrase, so powerfully received in Poland in 1979, has equal force here and now. The Papal invitation to do the right thing, no matter the personal costs involved, has bearing for all of us connected to the civil justice system.

Judges, lawyers, as well as politicians and journalists, should strive for the courage needed to speak the truth, no matter the cost.

To the members of the legislature: Be not afraid to vote for what is fair and reasonable, to ALL, and not to pander to the howling mob, stirred into hysteria by false tales of impending doom. Whether in Washington, Springfield or Edwardsville, have the courage, have the compassion, have the conscience, to stand up and say, “I will not give immunity to the negligent, nor more power to the already powerful. I will instead, protect rights, not wrongs.”

To the members of the judiciary: Be not afraid to deny the Courts of Madison County to those who would use it to settle personal scores, to those who would crowd the docket with cases without a legitimate basis for filing, or without any connection to this forum. Have the courage to send lawyers back across the river, rejecting their attempts to clog the Court with the cases of those who neither lived nor worked here. But give the righteous Plaintiff a day in court. While the law favors the mighty, be not timid. Give the working man his chance.

To the members of the bar: Be not afraid to speak out against those who would prostitute the court system, if only to heed their own greed. Publicly support those who speak out for fairness and justice. Become involved, remembering the courts belong to all for the redress of grievances. The exclusive few that wish only to add to their own wealth should not be allowed to triumph through the default of silence.

To members of the press: Be not afraid to print both sides, both positions, all information, dealing with medical malpractice issue. A partially informed public is an uninformed public, and an uninformed public is ripe for manipulation, easy picking for the demagogue. Have the courage to challenge the propaganda no matter how oft times repeated. Give the truth the light of day - it will blossom and take hold.

The complete legacy of John Paul II is yet to be written, but his place as a man of faith and courage cannot be denied. It presents an example for us all.

The hard part is to follow.

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