Sunday, May 1, is the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A, Cycle 1).
Acts 2:42-47; Psalms 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Today four celebrations coincide. It is Easter Sunday 2: Divine Mercy Sunday. It is also the first day in Mary’s month; many May crownings will take place today. It’s also the date of the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, though Sunday takes precedence this year.
And today is the day John Paul II will be beatified in Rome. That is appropriate, because he was a lifelong devotee of the Virgin Mary who wrote an apostolic exhortation on St. Joseph.
However, it is the feast of Divine Mercy that was the reason today’s date was chosen for John Paul’s beatification. John Paul was an apostle of Divine Mercy who promoted St. Faustina, created today’s feast and died on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy six years ago, when it fell earlier in the year, on April 3. So the feast of Divine Mercy is also the anniversary of John Paul II’s birth to eternal life.
What did he see in Divine Mercy? “Love is stronger than death,” he writes in Dives in Misericordia (On Divine Mercy). He learned that the hard way.
Little Lolek (as he was called) lost his mother, Emilia Wojtyla, as a 9-year-old. “The Pope’s mother was particularly close to her son,” a friend of Emilia once said. “She was proud of him. All mothers are, I suppose, but Emilia was different. She was an absolute darling.”
Emilia would tell her friends: “You will see: My Lolek will become a great man.”
Anyone who knows 9-year-olds knows that they are quite capable of understanding — and being motivated — by that kind of confidence from their mothers.
When John Paul was a young man, he wrote in a poem: “Oh, how many years have gone by / Without you? — how many years / Have passed over your white grave? / Still, mother, my beloved, you are gone.”
Lolek was 11 when his brother and only sibling died at age 26.
The two were far apart in age, but the little brother was absolutely in awe of his older brother. Edmund took Lolek hiking and skiing. Lolek was also deeply affected by the sight of his brother graduating magna cum laude from medical school in Krakow — that ceremony may have launched his own academic ambitions.
Edmund died while caring for a scarlet fever patient, and the Pope has said that losing his brother was harder on him than losing his mother. “My brother’s death became deeply engraved in my memory,” he said.
No doubt the heroics of his brother’s death — and his example of suffering for others — made as much of an impression on Lolek as the rest of what his brother did.
The Holy Father’s guide through all of this tragedy was Capt. Karol Wojtyla Sr. Said Pope John Paul II, “After my mother’s death, my father’s life became one of constant prayer.”
A Polish army record that papal biographer George Weigel found describes the captain as “extraordinary, well-developed, with a righteous character, serious, well-mannered, modest, concerned about honor, with a strongly developed sense of responsibility, very gentle and tireless.”
John Paul II remembered his dad in his last memoir, Arise, We Must Be Going. “The violence of the blows that struck him opened up immense spiritual depths in him. His grief found its outlet in prayer. The mere fact of seeing him on his knees had a decisive effect on my early years,” he wrote. “Even now when I awake at night, I remember seeing my father kneeling and praying.”
He summed it up: “My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God.”
It is good that he did, because the 20-year-old Wojtyla needed to be prepared for another shock: He came home from work one day to find his father had died. He spent the night on his knees beside his father, crying and praying. Later, he told a friend, “I’ve never felt so alone.”
He did find a way forward. And he didn’t just survive, he used his pontificate to defend and promote the family more than any other Pope in memory. He even took the family as his model for the Church.
“The Church can and ought to take on a more home-like and family dimension,” he wrote, “developing a more human and fraternal style of relationships.”
So it is providential that this May 1 was chosen for the beatification of John Paul II. It is Joseph’s day in Mary’s month, but both of them bow to Divine Mercy. And it is Divine Mercy that gave us a man so great out of so much pain.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.