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Today’s saint was one of the most significant figures of the 20th century, not only in the church but on the world stage.
Born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyła – “Lolek” to his family and friends, lost his mother when he was 9. When he was 12, his elder brother died. He enrolled at university in Krakow at the age of 19 to study his passion, Polish literature, but a year later Germany invaded Poland, the university was closed, and the professors deported to concentration camps.
In the hungry, bleak years of the German occupation, Karol, the aspiring actor who staged clandestine theater performances with his friends, came to know the world of manual laborers, the hardness of their lives as well as their great dignity, becoming a laborer himself in a stone quarry and a chemical plant. In 1941, he lost his father and then felt the inspiration of a religious vocation.
Karol studied for the priesthood in Krakow’s clandestine seminary and was ordained in 1946. His bishop noted the young priest’s intellectual and spiritual gifts and sent him to complete a doctorate in Rome. After some time as pastor of a parish and a university chaplain, Wojtyła became a professor of moral theology and ethics at Krakow and Lublin, where a group of students often accompanied him on hikes in the mountains.
There, far from the prying ears of Poland’s communist regime, the young people discussed philosophy, theology, the Christian life and often, their marriages with “Wujek,” “uncle” – the title they gave to Wojtyła on their outings to disguise the fact that he was a priest. It was experiences such as these, Wojtyła would later say, that made him “fall in love with human love.” They would become the living basis for his “theology of the body,” or theology of human love.
Believing a philosopher and poet would not “make too many waves,” in communist run Poland, Wojtyla was appointed to be a bishop. However, the young bishop whom they supposed to have his head in the clouds was a powerful preacher who began annually celebrating Christmas midnight Mass in a field for the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, a worker’s neighborhood that authorities had deliberately built without a church.
Soon, great events were taking place in the church: a new ecumenical council, convoked by Pope John XXIII to help the church to carry out her mission in the modern world. From 1962-1965, Bishop Wojtyła participated extensively in Vatican Council II, contributing to the drafting of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes and to the document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. In 1967 he became a Cardinal.
In 1978, upon the unfortunate passing of the just-elected Pope John Paul I, Karol Wojtyła was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years! He chose the name John Paul II.
On Oct. 22, 1978, at the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II cried out to the whole world, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!”
He would become the most traveled pope in history, reaching out to Catholics worldwide clocking in 1,100,000 kilometers (almost 700,000 miles) on the road.
On May 13, 1981, on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, an assassin shot the pope in a public audience in St. Peter’s Square. Surviving near death, John Paul made a pilgrimage to Fatima in thanks for the protection of the Virgin and placed the bullet withdrawn from his body in the crown of the Virgin’s statue. Furthermore, he made another pilgrimage: to prison, to forgive the “brother who shot me” face-to-face.
John Paul II was a prolific author and tireless preacher, always convinced that the human person is “the way of the Church” and that “the splendor of truth shines forth … in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God” (Veritatis Splendor 1).
The pope who had experienced two forms of totalitarianism firsthand was outspoken whenever he encountered any ideology that threatened the dignity of the human person, from dictatorships to Marxism to unbridled capitalism. The Solidarity movement in his own country drew strength from his words and example, which helped precipitate the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.
From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II sought to heal the divisions between the Christian churches, especially with his Orthodox brothers and sisters. He was convinced that the wound of division was contrary to the will of the Lord and weakened Christian witness.
In everything he did as a defender of human dignity and shepherd of the people of God, John Paul II was conscious of his task of leading the church and the world to a celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ and, through this, into the new millennium.
The Great Jubilee of the year 2000 was a privileged moment when believers praised the Holy Trinity for the Redeemer who “became our companion on life’s path … in the journey we make together … toward the new heaven and the new Earth.”
In the 1990’s, John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. So began the final chapter of his pontificate and mission, in which the energetic preacher who had traveled the world had one more “homily” to give, not with words but, as he gradually lost the capacity to speak, with silence.
As his successor Pope Benedict XVI observed, this “master of words” still had, not to say, but to show that “the Lord redeemed us with his cross, with the passion, as an extreme act of love.” In the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, he consoled the sick with his sickness; in the last months – including a mute blessing given to the crowds from his window – he showed what it meant to live the realities of suffering and death in Christ, as part of his Body.
On April 2, 2005, the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, John Paul II died. His last words were whispered, “Let me of to my Father’s house.” Some 3 million people came to Rome for his funeral and millions more followed on television. They had heard when this pope had told them not to be afraid, and they understood that in those last years and months, he had told them this in the most profound way possible. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI beatified his predecessor, and in 2013, Pope Francis declared him a saint.