On Monday, May 18, we commemorate the Centenary, the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II. Today, I offer this article I wrote years ago when he passed to the Father’s House. I also rededicate myself to doing everything I can to keep his legacy alive during these difficult years for the Church which he loved and served with such beauty.
I was not alone on that day. It seemed as though the whole world was joined with me, watching and weeping, as the servant of the servants of God, the polish Pope who began his stunning and historic pontificate as a lion, went home to the Heavenly Father as a lamb.
Throughout those years, from October 16, 1978 through April 2, 2005, John Paul II beautifully and prophetically pointed the way to his Savior and the Hope of the world, Jesus Christ. Now, he lives in that communion of love with the great cloud of witnesses to which the Letter to the Hebrews attests. (Hebrews 12:1-3) From that communion of saints he now reflects the light of Jesus, the Light of the world, for an age which suffers in darkness.
On March 7, 2014, Pope Emeritus Benedict gave an interview to a polish journalist named Wlodzimierz Redzioch. Benedict recounted, with deep affection and sincere love, the influence and impact of St. John Paul II on his own life and ecclesial ministry. The interview is a part of a book entitled Beside JPII: Friends and Collaborators Speak.
He affirmed what the faithful declared so strongly in the streets on the day when St. John Paul’s Body was processed through the streets of Rome as they cried out “Santo Subito!” He told Redzioch, “In the years of collaboration with him it became ever more clear to me that John Paul II was a saint.” In discussing his decision to advance the cause of St John Paul’s beatification earlier than the standard process, Pope Benedict noted that he did so because he was convinced of his holiness. He spoke of John Paul’s “intense relationship with God” which was obvious to all those with eyes to see. St. John Paul II embodied the cry of the Apostle Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
In another interesting interview with Vatican Radio, in 2008, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, recalled the events which occurred in St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of John Paul II: We remember the shouts of ‘Santo subito!’ ‘Sainthood now!’ that phrase, that cry, in St. Peter’s Square, expressed what people were thinking. It meant that John Paul II genuinely had a true reputation for holiness among the faithful. And we know that is essential in the process of beatification.
The Lord knows, we need his example and his prayers during this new missionary age of the Church. Like millions of the faithful throughout the world, I watched and prayed throughout the entire night of Pope John Paul II’s death. He had shown us all how to live, by choosing daily to be fully given over to Jesus Christ. He had shown us that suffering, joined to the Savior, can become a sign of God’s continued mercy and an occasion of grace when joined to the suffering of the Savior, in a total oblation of Love. His witness was beyond words.
Then, he showed us how to embrace death, not with fear, but with faith. He knew it was time to go, as he said in Polish, six hours before his death, to his close friend at his bedside, “Let me go to the house of the Father.”
We were privileged to experience the leadership, in both word and deed, of the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, now known as St. John Paul II. There is no doubt in my mind that John Paul II singularly influenced me more than any person in my life.
I find it to be telling that all these years later, as I have aged and seem to be forgetting much, I still I vividly remember that day in October of 1978, when he stepped out on to the balcony in St. Peters Square and proclaimed: “Be Not Afraid! Open up, no; swing wide the gates to Christ. Open up to his saving power the confines of the State, open up economic and political systems, the vast empires of culture, civilization and development. Be not afraid!”
Affirmed by many as one of the chief architects of the Second Vatican Council and its document on the relationship of the Church to the modern world (entitled “Joy and Hope” or “Gaudium et Spes” in Latin), this strong, passionate, charismatic priest and Bishop occupied the chair of Peter with a grace and dignity which pointed all who encountered him to the Lord whom he served. At a critical time in the history of both the Church and the modern world, he stepped forward like a lion, with a prophetic roar. He strode onto that platform with such strength and vitality that the whole world seemed to know that God was doing something spectacular.
This mountain-climbing Polish Pope was so filled with the love of God that it was contagious. He was a talented and gifted “man of letters”, a playwright, a philosopher, an intellectual giant, and a poet. But more importantly, he was a genuine human being with a big heart that embraced the whole world, like the Heart of the One whom he represented so beautifully as Vicar on earth, the King of Kings, Jesus the Lord. Like a lion in Peter’s chair, he consistently and tirelessly lived what he proclaimed with great courage. Unafraid, he traversed the globe, proclaiming freedom to the captives and truth to the victims of failed false ideologies that had ravaged the people of the twentieth century, the bloodiest in all of human history.
He never stopped passionately re-presenting the classical, unchanging Christian message with a prophetic urgency, profound clarity and contemporary relevance. Communism, atheism, secularism, and false humanisms were all exposed. St. JP II revealed that they were nothing but empty promises.
His papal writings provided a blueprint for the rebuilding of the Church in our day, so that she could rise to the great missionary moment of the Third Millennium of Christianity. This mission and message was skillfully and brilliantly developed into a body of rich theology by his humble friend and successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Then, after his fruitful years of service and historic, humble choice to step down from his office for the sake of the ongoing work of the Church, it is being stepped into prophetic action by Pope Francis. We are living in a trajectory of the Holy Spirit at the helm of the Church.
St. John Paul II insisted that no area of human experience is off-limits to the influence of the Gospel and the Church. The Church is, in the words of the Fathers of the second Vatican Council, an “expert in humanity”. He was a profoundly evangelical Pope, calling all men and women to encounter the evangelium, the Good News – the Risen Jesus Christ. He called all men and women to that One Redeemer, Jesus Christ. In Him they are invited to discover the purpose and fulfillment of human life itself. He proclaimed the truth that human existence is an invitation to communion with God and with one another. He taught a people bent on “self fulfillment” that they can only find their authentic fulfillment in giving themselves away in love, to God and to one another, as a gift.
He called all of us to live a dynamically alive, fully integrated Christian faith and lifestyle, exhibiting what he called a “unity of life”. In other words, making sure that we walked the talk, that the implications of the Christian faith inform the entirety of our lives – with no contradiction or separation. He confronted and exposed what he labeled the culture of death, wherein the human person is treated as an instrument to be used rather than an unrepeatable gift to be received. He proposed a different way, that of building a new culture of life where every human person, at every age and stage, is recognized as having an inviolable dignity and right to life, freedom and love. He spoke constantly of building a Civilization of Love. He prophetically called us to be about the task, through both the power of his words and the witness of his life.
He charted a path to authentic peace and solidarity, proclaiming to the Nations that we are our brother’s keeper and that we owe an obligation in solidarity to one another and, most especially, to the poor in all of their manifestations in our midst. He insisted that authentic human freedom is a freedom for and not just a freedom from. He reminded us regularly of the essence of the moral teaching of both the Natural Law and revelation, that the exercise of human freedom must always be directed toward choosing the true, the good and the beautiful. He exposed what he called a counterfeit notion of freedom, such as when freedom is wrongly directed and treats persons as property. He was properly called a Master of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is dedicated to him, under that title.
He decried a false notion of the autonomy of the individual. In fact, he warned that it was setting us on a path to a new slavery. He insisted instead that the Christian vision of the human person as made for communion and self-gift in love was the only path to true freedom. He proclaimed that human flourishing and happiness can only found in this rediscovery of our call to communion with God and, in Him, with one another. His writings, allocutions and witness of life – all proclaimed a new and true humanism, a rediscovery of the essential and existential truth that we were created in the Image of God, made for communion, and that we can only become fully human when we live that communion out in love.
He insisted that the treasury of the Social doctrine of the Catholic Church was intended for the whole world. That it offered principles which could help build truly just and peaceful societies which promoted the true common good. He believed that these principles, if applied in public policy, would lead to just national and international relations.
I believe that Saint John Paul II was a Prophet. From his first encyclical letter “The Redeemer of Man” to his last, he eloquently proclaimed that Truth is, as he wrote in one of his finest encyclicals, a splendor. He was also an apostle of Christian unity, a task continued through the work and witness of his successors, Benedict and Francis.
With deep love, respect and dedication for what he called the Light of the East, St John Paul II called for Eastern and Western Christianity to rediscover their absolute dependence upon one another in order that the entire Body of Christ might rise up and once again breathe with two lungs in order to present the whole Jesus Christ to a world that needs to be liberated.
The transformational themes of the pontificate of St. John Paul II still pave the path for the continued renewal of the Church, and through her, for the transformation of human culture. The oft-repeated paragraph 22 from “Joy and Hope“, of the Second Vatican Council — which many sources affirm that he authored — is a key to understanding his profound thought, deep faith and hope:
In reality, it is only in the mystery of the word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.
Gaudium et Spes, #22
Our Christian faith does not just speak only to our personal lives. It is not private. It speaks to the whole of life and is meant to inform and transform the entire way we both view and live our lives in the real world. It is also profoundly public, to be lived in our lives as an integrated whole, for that world. God still loves the world and He still sends His Son into it, through the lives of those who bear the name Christian. St. John Paul II showed us the way. He began his pontificate like a Lion roaring. He ended it as a Lamb given over to embracing death with love. His influence now continues as a light for the Third Christian millennium.
That once vibrant, strong Pope became frail, sick, and physically weak before the eyes of the whole world which had greeted him. Then, like the grain of wheat of which the Lord Jesus spoke (John 12:24), he fell to the ground and died. The giant of a man who had once climbed mountains, symbolically mounted the cross of human suffering and, in his frail frame, exercised the authority of his office from the Chair of Peter, a wheelchair.
How fitting it seemed to me at the time that the champion of the weak, the disabled, the elderly, those who had no voice, was joined physically to them in order to show the world the truth of the beauty and dignity of every human life! He incarnated the love of God and demonstrated in his life the truth of the claims of the Christian faith. He emptied himself out for the Lord and His people. He then showed us the beauty of a suffering endured in love and offered for others, in the suffering of Jesus Christ.
With decreasing verbal eloquence, because his lips stammered from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, this amazing orator achieved something beyond words; he demonstrated the truth of the Christian message of love by revealing the God who came to suffer for us all. His prophetic presence through those final hours was shown to the whole world. He invited us all to give ourselves away in love, even in his final beautiful silence.
St. John Paul II became a seed of the New Springtime he proclaimed. He joined the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb who was slain for our sins. He is now a light, illuminating the way forward. As the catechism declares so well, “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Indeed, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal” (CCC #828).
St. John Paul II pray for us. St. John Paul II pray for the whole Church. St. John Paul II pray for the world.