Once in a Century: Remembering John Paul II

John Paul II was a man who left an indelible impression. My first personal encounter with him was in Phoenix, Arizona, when he visited the Native American Catholic community during his 1987 trip. As master of ceremonies for the event, I met the Holy Father on the stage and held the book of prayers for him, offering him direction on when to stand and sit during the liturgy.

He was in great form — with that unique mix of confidence, clarity, and humor that became his trademark — and he spoke with a joy and enthusiasm that touched the hearts of the Native people. Since the stage he was on rotated in a complete circle, I’d suggested that he sit in his chair while giving his blessing to the people. He answered with a wink and the trace of a smile: “The pope doesn’t sit but stands when he gives a blessing!” It was a split-second of unexpected, friendly intimacy, and I’ll never forget it.

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On the day he was elected pope, I was serving as pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Thornton, Colorado, and my parish bookkeeper was Polish. When she told me that the cardinals had elected a Pole, I thought she was teasing because of her own Polish roots. Indeed, like many of us, I’d never even heard of Karol Wojtyla.

That would change.

I have vivid memories of my ad limina visits with the Holy Father — the periodic reports every diocesan bishop must make to the Holy See — especially the first one in 1988. I had just been ordained a bishop a few months prior when I traveled to Rome to offer my accounting.

John Paul was extraordinarily kind. He joked gently with me and the other bishops of my region that I was much too young to be a bishop, although we both knew that I was actually five years older than he was when he was raised to the episcopacy. He was also keenly interested and engaged in talking about the life of the Church in the United States. I had fourad limina visits to the Holy Father in my 17 years as a bishop, and each one was a privileged moment, not simply because he was pope, but because of the humanity and goodness he brought to his ministry.

John Paul II was a source of great encouragement for those of us who have lived during the confusing post–Vatican II decades. He was an important steadying force for the Church but never an intellectual “conservative.” Rather, he was intensely creative and operated off a principle that he repeated again and again: The Church and the Truth must persuade people, rather than coerce them.

Even as we now celebrate the election of Pope Benedict XVI, many of us feel the need to talk about our grief. A man like John Paul II comes perhaps once in a century, and God sent him into a century that had forgotten what it means to be human. Yet in spite of all the suffering, failure, and evil in the world, he radiated hope. His hope gave us hope. His faith renewed our faith. And now he’s gone, and our hearts want to focus on the loss we feel. Part of life as we know it seems to have died with him.

It’s right for a family to mourn. For Catholics, John Paul was extraordinary in every sense. We certainly agree with the media that he was a great shepherd who guided the Church into the third millennium. But we know he was more than that. For us, he was a father, a man who loved people with a warmth and humor, courage and simplicity that many of us remember personally from World Youth Days around the globe. And his love for others had an obvious, visible source in his own love for Jesus Christ. John Paul made his life so transparent that we could see through him to the face of Jesus. Everything he did as pope led us to see that face of Christ in the Church, in the Word of God, and in the dignity of the people around us.


Rich in Mercy

The Holy Father died in Easter Week, during the season at the heart of our Faith. In the Church, we remember and celebrate Easter every Sunday. Thus, it’s no accident that John Paul saw every Sunday as the center of Christian discipleship. “Sunday resounds throughout society, [pouring out] reasons for hope. Sunday is the proclamation that time — in which [the] Risen Lord of history makes his home — is not the grave of our illusions but the cradle of [a] new future, an opportunity [to] turn the fleeting moments of this life into seeds of eternity,” he once said.

That’s how he lived his life: inspired by hope. He lived every moment, every action, and every choice as a seed of eternity. That’s how he also wanted us to live. And that’s why he turned us — again and again — to the sacredness of the Lord’s Day, because on every Sunday, in Masses celebrated all over the world, human beings find the only true reason for hope in the body and blood of Jesus Christ on the altar and in the Word of God in Scripture.

Curiously, on the day after John Paul died, Sunday’s first reading spoke directly to what a life of Christian discipleship involves. The text, from the Acts of the Apostles, said that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.” They trusted the apostles and listened to the Word of God. And then they acted on it. They committed themselves “to the communal life, to the breaking of bread,” and to prayer. They shared what they had with the poor. They supported each other with joy and sincerity of heart. In other words, they loved each other, and that love became a magnet that drew others to the Faith and gradually reshaped the world.

John Paul knew that the secret to this early Christian love was the experience of divine mercy received through the cross. It profoundly shaped his understanding of suffering and hope. For the early Christians, God’s mercy — in the gift of His Son’s redemptive suffering — created hope, and hope created joy; and these things together moved their hearts to love one another and to bring others into a community of love. The sign of that love was showing mercy to others as God had shown mercy to them.

Mercy is love that goes beyond fairness. Fairness cannot save us. If God’s justice were like human justice, we’d all be condemned, because we’re all sinners. We’re caught in a web of sins against one another and can never make that right by demanding what we think is “fair,” because someone else can rightly place on us the same judgment we place on him. We therefore need to be much more than just “fair” to others.

This was a guiding principle of John Paul’s pontificate. Indeed, it’s the heart of his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy): the need to forgive and seek forgiveness. Real justice, God’s justice, flows from mercy. Mercy is an expression of God’s fatherhood, His greatness, which has the power of forgiving us freely and is beyond natural understanding. Only when we forgive and show mercy to others can we rely on the same mercy for ourselves.

In a profound way, this devotion to God’s mercy undergirded all of Karol Wojtyla’s talk of a “new evangelization.” Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ confidently to an unbelieving and cynical world — “speaking the truth in love,” in St. Paul’s words — is an act of mercy. To a world locked in mutual recriminations and demands for “justice,” John Paul II offered a different path.


I Know That My Redeemer Lives

Some 600,000 people filed past his bier on the first day of official mourning. More than 1.4 million saw the body before he was buried. Nearly 3 million persons traveled to Rome for the funeral. Why did he draw so many? Obviously, he was deeply loved and respected, and not just by Catholics. But he also embodied certain qualities that all of us instinctively hunger to believe in: that one life can make a difference; that beauty and good are more powerful than evil and death; that there’s a purpose to our lives beyond ourselves; and that because we’re all created by the same God, what we share in common is more important than what divides us.

Karol Wojtyla was a quarry worker, actor, poet, athlete, playwright, priest, and philosopher. He did all these things well. He proved by his life the words of Irenaeus: that God’s glory is man fully alive. He was a reflective person, but never passive. In a way, the key to understanding him could be found in the title of his book, The Acting Person. For John Paul II, man is always the subject of history, never its object — always the actor, never the acted upon.

For John Paul, engaging the world — acting on what we claim to believe — is how we become what God intended us to be: God’s collaborators in renewing the face of the earth and creating the future. In an age of determinism — filled with one soulless explanation of the human person after another, economic, historical, genetic — there was no trace of fatalism in the man. For Karol Wojtyla, nothing was predetermined except God’s sovereignty and final victory. The rest is up to us. We have the freedom to help God shape the world. That freedom both reflects and reinforces the dignity of the human person.

Wojtyla was an icon of both his nation and his faith. Modern Warsaw is built quite literally on the rubble of Nazi destruction. Modern Poland likewise rests on the debris of 50 years of German and Soviet brutality. John Paul took that national Golgotha and translated it into a global witness of reconciliation and hope. In doing so, he was simply living his people’s Christian faith in its most authentic way: taking the cross of Jesus — an instrument of debasement and murder — and turning it into an engine of resurrection and new life.

How was he able to do this? Only through his own encounter with God, which had a deep dimension of personal suffering. His mother died when he was young. He lost his brother soon after and his beloved father in his early 20s. He saw scores of friends die in the Second World War, in the Holocaust, and in the postwar Stalinist repressions. A parallel exists between the experience and words in the Book of Job and the experience and choices made by Karol Wojtyla. “For I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25).  Across the centuries, Job speaks these words to us from a context of intense suffering and ambiguity. In a similar manner, it’s as if Karol Wojtyla took the worst devastation that modern evil could wreak on the human person, and then said, “Thank you, I will use this suffering as the first stone in a new house of God; a new home for His people.”

His confidence came from his conviction, taken from the words of St. Paul, that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). We don’t live for ourselves, we live for others; and we don’t die alone, we die surrounded and loved by God. We also have obligations that give our lives meaning, and for which we’ll be held accountable. Our actions toward each other not only matter here and now, in this life — they also matter eternally.

So how then should we act? For John Paul, the human experience, like each human life, had a beginning in time and will also have an end. All human life is linear; it moves with a purpose, and that purpose is the sanctification of the world through the presence of God’s love. We are God’s agents in that task, and the work it involves is mandated by the gospel: Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; welcome the stranger; visit the sick and imprisoned; shelter the homeless; clothe the naked; protect the weak, the widow, the unborn child, the suffering, and the sick. God put us in the world to make it better, to renew it by our actions. What we claim to believe in our personal lives we need to act on in our public lives.

Through his words, humor, travel, and writings, John Paul II witnessed to the nations about his Catholic Faith for more than 26 years as pope. What arrests us now is the silence and stillness of a person whose energy filled the world for nearly three decades. But even in that silence he teaches us one last lesson: We’re mortal. Our time here matters because, great or small, we each have so very little of it. We move forward, moment by moment, to the threshold of eternity.

John Paul II crossed that threshold with the Christian hope he always preached and always embodied. In what he accomplished, John Paul showed us what one person in love with God can do even out of the ashes of war, oppression, and genocide. Surely each of us, whatever our faith, can honor his memory by forgiving one another, showing justice and mercy to each other, and living our lives, here and now, lit by the hope of heaven.


A Report on the Giant by the Dwarves

What will the future make of John Paul II’s legacy? I think three fundamental things.

He changed the Church. We remember Blessed John XXIII for his vision of a renewed Catholic Faith able to speak to the modern world and for his boldness in setting that vision in motion. But God called him home soon after, and John XXIII left the council’s heavy lifting to Paul VI — and in the post-conciliar years, to John Paul II, who had helped craft some of Vatican II’s key documents. Karol Wojtyla embodied the Second Vatican Council and made its spirit real in the world by his actions. He turned the vision of John XXIII into the tangible fabric of Catholic life.

He changed the papacy. He completed the transition of the bishop of Rome from medieval ruler to global shepherd, conscience, missionary, reconciler, and advocate. He benefited, of course, from vast improvements in postwar transportation and communications. But he also had the insight, drive, and talent to use these tools with unparalleled effect. No one could work a crowd — including a crowd of journalists — like Karol Wojtyla. More importantly, the substance of the man exceeded his public image. Like Jesus visiting Zacchaeus, he went to people where they lived, again and again, and his presence catalyzed new possibilities.

He changed the world. He lived through 50 years of Nazi and then Communist persecution of his people. He experienced both personally. He was a major player in breaking down the Soviet bloc and ending the Cold War. But he also understood and witnessed against the idolatries of the West: consumer greed, radical individualism, a distorted sense of personal freedom, dysfunctional sexuality, practical atheism masked by superficial religion, neglect of the world’s poor, and a growing contempt for human life. To secular “post-Christian” elites who had grown comfortable with the idea that religious faith would tamely wither away, John Paul II was a world-wrecker. Believers, of course, call that holiness.

John Paul II achieved so much in almost 27 years that we tend to forget the scope of his impact. Most of us remember his scores of pastoral visits to countries all over the world. But he was also the most prolific writing and thinking pope in centuries. His opening to the Jewish people and recognition of the state of Israel transformed Catholic-Jewish relations. He tirelessly pursued closer contacts with Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

He renewed Catholic identity with his confidence and missionary vigor. He poured new wine into new wineskins with his support for Catholic renewal communities and dynamic new movements. He reinvigorated Catholic intellectual and moral life with an enormous body of teachings, books, talks, and documents on everything from bioethics and science to human sexuality and economic justice. He committed his whole life as a priest and bishop to defending the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death. And he expressed that in a relentless dedication to the rights of the homeless, the poor, working men and women, the infirm, and the unborn.

John Paul II had other great accomplishments, of course. He approved the first new global Catholic catechism in 400 years. He revised and renewed the Code of Canon Law, the first such revision in nearly seven decades, for the Latin Church. (This he did in his first five years in office.) He also oversaw the development of the first Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches. And he literally reshaped the worldwide Catholic community with hundreds of appointments of bishops and cardinals.

John Paul II had a unique and enduring affection for laypeople, some of whom were lifelong personal friends; these included artists, musicians, actors, and writers because of his own early background; and especially married couples, for whose struggles he had a profound respect and sympathy.

He also had his critics. Some argue that he neglected the administration of the Church; that his many apologies for past Christian sins undermined the credibility of Catholic witness; that he traveled too much and wrote too much, submerging his key messages in too much action and too many words; that he neglected real ecumenism — or, alternately, that he was too irenic toward other religions. History may judge his conciliatory approach toward Islam as either a great strength or a confusing weakness of his papacy.

Critics also repeatedly and inaccurately described him as a “conservative” or a centralizer. These are misleading words. He was a centripetal man in a centrifugal age; a force for unity, integration, and renewal of mission in the Church at a time when the aftermath of the council threatened to fragment Catholic identity. The U.S. media’s constant harping on issues like abortion, contraception, and women priests revealed far more about American parochialism and sexual disarray than it did about the real issues facing the global Church. In fact, media coverage of the Wojtyla pontificate seemed to become, in its later years, what one of my senior staffers called “a report on the giant by the dwarves.”

The motives of the media are, perhaps, better left unjudged. But that John Paul II was a giant, we should have no doubt.

We now face the challenge of digesting and acting on John Paul II’s service to the Church. His legacy is so deep and so extensive that it will be years before we fully understand everything he left us. Catholics should be cautious in suggesting any agenda for his successor, because it will probably turn out to be wrong.

We have only this certainty. Benedict XVI — John Paul’s trusted friend and close adviser — will be at once different and the same: the same in creed, mission, and love for Jesus Christ; different in personality, style of leadership, and perhaps emphasis. Such is as it should be. We can be sure that God sent us the pope the Church needs.

Be not afraid. Those words of John Paul II ring as true today in his silence as they did from his lips on the night of his election. Karol Wojtyla embodied hope in an age with so little of it, and because of him, the world is different. And so are we.


This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.


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