John Paul the Great

In 1979 in the Empire State Building where Catholic Relief Services then had its headquarters, I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Though petite in physical stature, she was already a moral giant in the eyes of the world. In the years that followed I remember thinking that I had conversed with someone who someday might be declared a saint!

It seems to me that the Church, indeed the world, has been blessed by historically exceptional pontiffs during the past century. Paramount among them is John Paul II who, I fully expect, will someday be called ‘John Paul the Great’, an honorific enjoyed by only two of his 263 predecessors. Both before and after his elevation to the Chair of Peter, his life and accomplishments have been extraordinary.

Thirty some years later in Baltimore at another event sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, I had the privilege of shaking hands with Pope John Paul II. While the prospect of his canonization did not occur to me at the time, during his funeral observance, in April of 2005, I was one of millions of television viewers across the world who vicariously joined the multitude gathered at St. Peter’s Square as they shouted ‘santo subito’. Now John Paul is to be beatified on May 1, the penultimate step to canonization. Like many others, I will have crossed paths with two saints!

His beatification will occur on the Feast of Divine Mercy, still well within Eastertide. Its approach is an invitation for us to consider how the life and legacy of Karol Wojtyla have touched our own lives so far and how they will provide us with moral and spiritual bearings going forward.

It seems to me that the Church, indeed the world, has been blessed by historically exceptional pontiffs during the past century. Paramount among them is John Paul II who, I fully expect, will someday be called ‘John Paul the Great’, an honorific enjoyed by only two of his 263 predecessors. Both before and after his elevation to the Chair of Peter, his life and accomplishments have been extraordinary.

The personal suffering he endured as a young man are now well known, as are the persecutions and deprivations he endured under Communism and Nazism and the challenges he faced as an active participant in the underground Church in Poland. These experiences formed and fortified his understanding of how the Church relates to the world – an understanding which bore fruit in his contribution to the documents of the Second Vatican Council (especially Guadium et Spes) in the early 1960s. After being elected the first non-Italian pope in almost a half millennium, John Paul was soon recognized as a world leader and would remain so for the next 26 years – the third longest pontificate in history.

In retrospect his gifts to the progress of humanity are breathtaking. An aggressive challenger of communism, atheism, secularism and false humanism, Pope John Paul also excelled in the disciplines of theology, philosophy, linguistics, politics, history and art. A prolific writer, he authored 14 encyclicals, several books and numerous apostolic exhortations. He was a polyglot who visited 129 countries during his reign, survived an assassination attempt (whose perpetrator he later forgave), and championed authentic personal and universal freedom. He was internationally respected for his calls for ecumenical collaboration for justice and religious freedom, and his concern for youth (World Youth Day) and the poor. Most poignantly, he had a deep affection for Judaism and for Jews whom he referred to as ‘our elder brothers’. He was the first Pope to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

What I shall always be particularly grateful for in the life of this epic human being is his compelling exposition of the inter-dependence of faith and reason (‘Fides et Ratio’) – a clarion call to anyone, Christian or otherwise, seeking guidance in a world too willing to abandon that natural law “written in our hearts”.

How about you? Has your life been somehow changed by Blessed John Paul? Please feel free to share your thoughts on our blog.

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1 Comment

  1. In advance of Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to the US in 1987, I was contracted by the USCC Communications Office to write a nationally aired documentary, produced by KPIX-TV in San Francisco, about the themes the Holy Father would address at each stop on the visit. I also drafted a brief message that the pope had agreed to read at the end of the 30-minute show, to greet Americans. I overwrote (not a surprise to anyone who knows me), and John Paul’s deliberate pronunciation of the English text made it run over. No one on the interfaith crew at KPIX wanted to be responsible for making the necessary cuts, so they had me make the call. I was blessed to be present during the papal visit when the Holy Father addressed the Hollywood Catholic community at Universal Studios, but that’s not what stuck in my head when the beatification was announced. All I could think of was, “Uh oh, I cut a saint!”

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