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Mel Martinez Pays Tribute to Pope on Senate Floor

Tuesday, 05 April 2005 12:00 AM

"As a person of the Roman Catholic faith myself, I thought it was important and appropriate that this morning I take a few moments to speak to the greatness of this man and the contribution that he's made not only to enriching the faith life of those of us that practice the Roman Catholic faith, but really to the people of the world as a great statesman and moral leader.

"Pope John Paul was one of the most remarkable people of our times. His papacy lasted 26 years, which is the third longest in the 2,000-year history of our church. But, it was during tumultuous and difficult times. Pope John Paul was prepared for this papacy; he was prepared for this mantle of leadership through tremendous hardships in his life.

"As a young person, he lost his mother very early in life only to be followed by the very dramatic loss of his only brother and only a very few years later the loss of his very beloved father. At a very young age just as a young man, Pope John Paul was left alone in the world without any close family. He developed a long and strong network of friendships that he maintained all through his life and even through the days of his papacy.

"But in addition to that, the Pope's youth was tempered but living under tyranny -- he had to be subjected to tyrannical occupation of Germany of his Polish homeland and the persecution of people like him -- people of faith. In addition to that, once that was over with and he began to seek his vocational pursuit in the priesthood, he had to do so underground because subsequent to the German occupation and the Nazi regime's end it was followed by the Communist takeover of Poland.

"Eastern Europe -- as we all know -- became engulfed and contained what came to be known by the words of Sir Winston Churchill as the Iron Curtain. Poland, falling behind the walls of the Iron Curtain, was where faith was not to be practiced openly and where he could not attend a seminary openly but had to do it in an underground fashion.

"Pope John Paul's preparation for the priesthood and the papacy was forced in the difficult times that he faced, not only personally but also in his life as a citizen of Poland. It then fell upon him to be a Pope at a time when the world was undergoing change, and at a time when the people of his beloved Poland were energized like no other in history but his papacy and his theme of ‘Be Not Afraid.' His trip back to Poland in the early years of his papal reign was punctuated by his remarkable reception by the people of Poland -- people that were thirsting for freedom, thirsting for freedom. So the papal visit was a transcending moment in the history of Poland, but as we now know, it was really a transcending moment in the history of our world because it really did signify and signal the beginning of the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

"Pope John Paul worked closely with several United States presidents, but none more closely than the work he did with President Ronald Reagan during those crucial years when the Cold War came to a head and where we saw the beginning of the fraying of what was a failed system, of what was a system that had only been maintained through terror and through fear. And his theme of ‘Be Not Afraid' began to be heard, began to be responded to and the people of Poland began that surge toward freedom which was inevitable through all of Europe. So the Pope's contribution there was crucial, was critical and was something that, I think we all saw as a tremendous contribution.

"Of course, the Pope also visited the United States on many occasions. I believe I have heard over the last several days that it was second most visited country after his beloved Poland. And it was with great significance that we received him here and it made a tremendous difference in the life of our own country.

"But more recently, the pope visited Cuba eight years ago. Cuba is an imprisoned island in the Caribbean where there never had there been a papal visit before. It is also a country that is ruled very much under the same kind of tyrannical communism that he saw in his native Poland during the days of his youth and that he battled against all of his adult life as a priest being suppressed in his ability to worship freely. Cuba happens to be the place where I was born. It was a place where I began my life and where the principles of the Catholic faith were taught to me early in my life and in the Church. It was in that same land that I came to understand the meaning of oppression, the meaning of tyranny, and the meaning of the lack of freedom that the Pope shared in his youth. He and I in very different parts of the world shared a common experience in understanding the limitations -limitations of freedom sometimes placed on people by governments that protect what we find so basic which is the right of free speech and the right to practice religion freely. The Pope's trip to Cuba was a monumental thing because it allowed the people of Cuba to begin again-to practice their faith in an open way. His theme there ‘Be Not Afraid' was heard in Cuba and thousands and thousands of Cubans were expressing their faith in an open way, in a way they were not permitted before, which now they dare to do.

"The Pope's visit did not have the same galvanizing political effect that it did in Poland where it led to change, but it did have a strong pastoral message that the people of Cuba welcomed with open arms and received. It inspired the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba to speak openly about the lack of religious freedom, the kind of religious oppression that I felt in my own life that led me to seek freedom in the United States with the help of the church that the Pope began to lead.

"The Catholic Church's fight against atheistic communism led to a program called Operation Peter Pan that took 14,000 young people from Cuba to freedom here in the United States. I was lucky to be among them. My life here began under the care of Catholic Church. I understand fully the religious oppression that the people of Cuba suffer which continues today – but, which the Pope made a little better, gave them a window, an opening, a moment. For the first time in over 35 years, Christmas was celebrated in anticipation of the papal visit. Unfortunately, Cuba now has fallen back into a more repressive practice and freedom of religion is curtailed even more so today.

"So as we look at the Pope's life and as we look at this moment in history that we're living by this remarkable man and this remarkable life, and the contributions that he made, we must continue to understand that there is work that is still to be done, there are people in the world who still are hungry and who still suffer and there are those in the world who still lack the religious freedoms to openly practice their faith much as the Pope in his youth was curtailed from doing. And, those people today in Cuba and other places around the world still yearn for that opportunity to freely worship, still yearn for the opportunity to do what we find so remarkable as we began our proceedings this morning with the Chaplain of the Senate offering a word of prayer.

"Mr. President, I conclude my remarks by simply saying that we have been touched in our lives by this remarkable man. His life has shaped the world in which we have lived. It is a life well lived and he has come to the end of his journey, I hope that those of us who share in his faith and also share in his ideals of the respect of every human life and every human being will continue to carry on the wonderful legacy that he has left for us.

"Thank you, Mr. President."


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"As a person of the Roman Catholic faith myself, I thought it was important and appropriate that this morning I take a few moments to speak to the greatness of this man and the contribution that he's made not only to enriching the faith life of those of us that practice the...
Tuesday, 05 April 2005 12:00 AM
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