There was one phrase heard over the radio last week that said everything. The newsreader told us: "The Pope is clinging to life."

Actually, he wasn't. And this little misperception illuminates a whole chasm of ignorance when it comes to understanding a man such as Pope John Paul II. The commentators in the BBC simply took it for granted that the Pope would have the same attitude towards death as they have. But he didn't. The modern attitude when faced with death is a mixture of morbid fascination and blind terror. The Pope, by contrast, was prepared for death and he welcomed it.

This is a sign of the utter difference between the Pope and the spirit of our age. The age is secular. The Pope was not. As the Prayer Book says, he lived as one who believed and trusted in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

The modern age doesn't believe these things. With a few isolated and glorious exceptions, religion today - where it is acknowledged at all - is something for Sunday best. It is like a hobby - a good and wholesome hobby, to be sure. But a hobby nonetheless. It is a part - no doubt an important part - but still just a part of life even for regular churchgoers.

For the Pope, the faith and its truth was his whole life. There was not an issue or an instant which his faith did not govern. Let me stress this: he was not secular. He was religious. And we are fortunate, for he explained in words of one syllable what it means to be religious. It means that everything starts with the being of God.

He was simply repeating this truth taught to us in the 13th century by St Thomas Aquinas. Religion does not start with what we might happen to think. Even the most exalted and sublime thoughts any theologian or philosopher might have about God is not the start of it. Religion starts with the being of God himself.

By contrast, the modern age began in the 16th century and it began with human speculation at the centre of everything. The prophets of the modern age were Descartes, with the egocentric philosophy: "I think, therefore I am"; Shakespeare's antihero introducing moral relativism by saying, "There's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"; and Martin Luther's romanticism which put our feelings about God before the being of God. All of them, wrong from the start.

This is our inheritance, God help us! And to think, it went by the name of The Enlightenment. Well, we do have God to help us. That was the constant teaching of John Paul. The Pope knew that what matters is God and his truth. He helped to bring down communism and destroy all that murderous oppression. He was advised that he couldn't do it - the Soviets were too powerful. He replied that all they had were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and related military might. That was all they had! John Paul said their empire was bound to collapse because it was based on a lie. That lie was atheism.

On his way to Calvary, Jesus said to the women: "Weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children." Quite! John Paul said: "Don't weep for me. I am happy." He is an example. What you do with an example is follow it.

* Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill, in the City of London, and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.