It’s easy, with a man like Pope John Paul II, to make a crucial mistake: to make him superhuman. The achievements in his life seem great and effortless, both at once.
Coming into the Church in the middle of a crisis of faith, he said, “Open the doors to Christ,” and many of us — eventually — did, as his prodding reached down to us, through the Church.
He wasn’t the great condemner many wanted him to be. Instead, he searched for the distorted truth at the core of modern errors and recovered it. He answered Marxism and Madison Avenue with the same message: “Work was made for man, not man for work.” He answered the sexual revolution with a revolution in Catholic thought about the beauty and necessity of authentic sexual expression.
Just as the Church was being mocked as something that only the elderly bothered with anymore, he gathered the largest crowds in the history of the planet at his World Youth Day events — even as a frail old man.
It all seemed so perfect. He helped topple communist tyranny in the '80s. He presided over a flowering of Catholic doctrine in the 1990s, with the publication of the Catechism and encyclicals whose very names sum up the key elements missing from the intellectual life of our times and our Church: The Gospel of Life, The Splendor of Truth, Faith and Reason.
Those who rejected his magisterium wanted to say the Church was adrift: With his Jubilee Year and plan for the new millennium, he stole their chance.
The truth is, his pontificate was perfect in its own way — and it was more than Karol Wojtyla was capable of.
Yes, Karol Wojtyla was a talented man, but not that talented. As a playwright he learned about the importance of drama and the power of arresting insights — but he wasn’t a great playwright. As a poet he learned to reflect the beauty of God’s creation in words — but he wasn’t a great poet. As a writer he was philosophically rich and theologically deep in a way that will change the course of the Church — but he was a dense writer who is difficult to read.
Above all, God deserves our praise and our gratitude for Pope John Paul II.
In the end, perhaps the one thing the Holy Father did was at the same time the simplest and most difficult thing he was asked to do.
He prayed. Deeply. Insistently.
For hours, every day.
As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete once said, the real secret of the Christian message is: “All you have to do is do what you’re supposed to do." The Pope has done what he’s supposed to do. And boy, has he really done it.
It takes a profound love to do what you’re supposed to do, day in and day out. John Paul had that love. That’s what gave him an edge.
Even as an altar boy, he had done what he was supposed to do. Even when the German army entered Poland in 1939.
“It was the first wartime Mass before the altar of the crucified Christ, and the scream of sirens and the thud of explosions have remained forever in my memory,” said Father Kazimierz Figlewicz, who was a priest in Krakow at the time. “Nonetheless, Karol, in his imperturbable way, had crossed over the bridge and walked to the cathedral because he was always observant in his religious commitments.”
When the Church made him a priest, he continued to do what he was supposed to do — using his priesthood to reach young couples and college students.
When the Church made him a bishop in a land torn by communism, he did what he was supposed to do — he opposed the communists in a fearless but careful way, maximizing the rights of the Church and the power of his witness at the same time.
When the Church made him Pope in a time of intense turmoil in the Church, he did what he was supposed to do again.
It could have been different. Karol Wojtyla could have insisted on being an actor. He could have insisted on being a university professor. He could have become a full-time poet. He could have clung to the things he thought were valuable in his personality and asserted them. He may have made a mark on the world of some kind.
But, instead, he lost himself in God’s plan, handed over his talents, did what he was supposed to do — and achieved more than any man or woman in memory.
And at the end of his life, God proved who deserves the credit for the Pope’s astounding success. The illness that struck the Pope was marked by the way it targeted the very talents that had supposedly accounted for his success.
As a speaker, the younger John Paul could be very eloquent — but his speeches for almost the last decade of his life were difficult to listen to, as he strained and slurred his words.
The athletic, spry John Paul had inspired people by his custom of bending down to kiss the ground of the nations he visited, his sportsman pursuits and his vigorous character. At the end of his life he could barely move, and his hands shook as he was wheeled around on a podium.
The former actor’s face expressed a range of emotions that helped him communicate with his audience. But, at the end, he couldn’t smile well, laugh, show concern or use his face much at all.
Yet, even when the talents of the man faded, the people still flocked to see the Pope. They flocked to him at the 2000 World Youth Day in Rome, and he surprised critics and fans alike when they flocked to him again in Toronto in 2002.
Karol Wojtyla had no charismatic aura on his own. It was given to him by God, and it was charged to incandescence by his fidelity in the simple obligations of his Christian life: prayer, the sacraments, obedience to the Church.
It wasn’t Karol Wojtyla people were coming to see. It was Peter — the one who was given a special grace by God to be Vicar of Christ.
On our front page, we say, “Pray for Us, Pope John Paul II.” We repeat it here.
Pray for us, Your Holiness. Give us the courage to follow your simple path of conversation with God and acceptance of his will. Your life shows us where true greatness lies: in loving God enough to do what we’re supposed to do. Pray that we learn this lesson and do it.
Pray that we will be worthy of you, John Paul the Great.