"Be not afraid."
With those words, John Paul II began his historic pontificate, and the message inspired a new generation of priests, religious and laity to "open wide the doors to Christ" that has left an indelible mark on the Church.
Consecrated a bishop by John Paul II, Cardinal Donald Wuerl has seen the great difference made in the Church from the vocations inspired by the saint’s example.
"I think one of the things I see in so many of our young people who have followed the inspiration of John Paul II is an awareness that, to be a good follower of Christ, you have to know what Christ calls us to be and to accept that challenge and try to live it," said the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington. "And they saw that in John Paul II."
John Paul II’s pontificate spanned 1978-2005 and included trips to 104 countries on 129 apostolic visits. His legacy leaves behind a massive body of writings that the Catholic Church in all walks of life (clerical, religious and lay faithful) continue to unpack and draw inspiration from.
Cardinal Wuerl said the pope’s first words of "Be not afraid" and "Open wide the doors to Christ," as well as his personal example, made a profound impression on his priesthood.
Since that moment, every encounter with John Paul II made "it clear to me that he identified himself completely with Christ at work in his Church."
"He saw himself as trying to make that presence of Christ as visible, as audible, as tangible as possible," he added.
Cardinal Wuerl said the pope’s synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day) proved not only inspirational for him in forming priestly vocations, but "set the pattern for priestly formation not only in the United States, but around the world."
"[John Paul II] was the model for how priests should be formed. He exhibited it in his own life, and he also gave the Church the structure from which to do it in the lives of others," Cardinal Wuerl said.
John Paul II’s personalism also made a profound impact on vocations in the Church.
"Relationships were important to him, as they are important to all of us, but they are especially to the youth," said Father Shawn Mc-Knight, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life & Vocations. He said the decline in priestly and religious vocations finally began to slow when priests and religious began promoting their own way of life, living it more visibly and building relationships with youth and inviting them to do the same.
"All of our data on vocations, here at the conference, makes very clear that our young people have to be encouraged and supported — not by just one or two individuals, but by multiple relationships that they have with people and those whom they respect," he said.
Father McKnight said the anecdotal evidence shows that Pope John Paul II’s time spent with the youth of the Church at World Youth Days has produced fruit, as higher numbers of persons making full professions report their vocations were inspired in part by WYD than those in the general Catholic population.
But John Paul II’s teaching also presented marriage as a vocation with "a sacrificial way of life," Father McKnight said, allowing young people to see that each of the different vocations have their joys and "their own crosses to bear."
The lay vocation received a tremendous boost from John Paul II, who gave a scope and direction to the role of the laity in the Church with writings such as Christifideles Laici (The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World), which the lay faithful needed after Vatican II. The Church has seen numerous fruits as the laity continue to unpack John Paul II’s theology and apply it to modern life.
"He made clear that there’s a work here that needs to be carried out by all members of the Church, but particularly the laity," said theologian Pia de Solenni.
Two Key Areas
De Solenni said theology of the body and the new feminism are two key areas where John Paul II’s teachings made a great difference, as the lay faithful have taken them to heart.
"John Paul II was very prescient in what the world needs to hear," she said. De Solenni pointed out that most people have no idea about what real sexuality and real intimacy are and how they relate to a person’s identity. She said John Paul II also helped people "go deeper" and discover the richness of the Church’s teachings. It empowered them to witness to a culture that is largely "torn apart with misconceptions about sex."
She added that the writings of John Paul II on women also inspired women to assume more roles of leadership in both the family and the professional world.
"What we do need to see more of today is women being recognized for the special contributions they make to the family as mothers," she said.
John Paul II also fostered a renewal of religious life and a growth of new religious orders. He convened a synod on the consecrated life, and his subsequent 1996 apostolic exhortation on the religious life, Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life and Its Mission in the Church and in the World), inspired four Dominican sisters to leave a thriving congregation and found a new Dominican order on Feb. 9, 1997: the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
"He’s the one I will always credit for such a wonderful explosion of vocations to our community, from its very inception on," said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the vocations director and one of the four foundresses of the Dominican Sisters of Mary.
She said the generation of youth inspired by John Paul II’s love for them, especially his teachings on loving the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, have filled their community. They have 120 sisters, and their average age is 29. Their vocations retreat was planned to coincide with the canonization of John Paul II.
"He really gave them that inspiration of greatness — we call him ‘great,’ but he called everyone ‘great’ — because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and God lives in us," she said. "And that greatness needs to accomplish heroic charity in the world."