National Catholic Register


Pope John Paul II: Missionary to the World

BY Tim Drake

April 3-9, 2005 Issue | Posted 4/3/05 at 9:00 AM


In his 1990 encyclical Mission of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II wrote, “From the beginning of my pontificate I have chosen to travel to the ends of the earth.” (No. 1)

And travel he did.

After 26 years as Christ’s ambassador on earth, he could boast of having been seen by more people than any other man in history. It’s an obligation the Pope described as imposed upon him by the Gospel.

“Right from the day I was elected as Bishop of Rome, Oct. 16, 1978, with special intensity and urgency I heard the echo of Jesus’ command: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all of creation,’” the Pope told a group gathered at the Vatican City in June, 2003.

“I thus felt the duty to imitate the Apostle Peter who ‘went here and there among them all’ to confirm and consolidate the vitality of the Church in fidelity to the Word and in service to the truth; to tell everyone that the Church loves them, that the Pope loves them and, likewise, to receive from them the encouragement and example of their goodness, of their faith,” the Holy Father said.

The most-traveled Pope in history, Pope John Paul II made 104 foreign apostolic trips and 146 trips within Italy during his pontificate, traveling a total of more than 700,000 miles, and spending more than 10% of his papacy outside of Rome.

“This is a pope who travels with a serious sense of purpose,” once said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. “He’s not on some tourist package. His aim is to reach all people — whether they are Catholics, non-Christians or even nonbelievers.”

Only months after his election, John Paul took his first apostolic trip to Mexico, a place where the Church had been violently persecuted during the first part of the century. Upon his arrival, he knelt and kissed the ground. Millions of Mexicans greeted him along with hundreds of priests and nuns who defied the government’s century-old ban of wearing religious habits in public.

His opening address was to a group of religious at the Puebla Conference in Mexico on Jan. 28, 1979.  In it, he hinted at the themes of his pontificate: family, vocations and young people. In his conclusion, he asked that Our Lady of Guadalupe, the “star of evangelization” be the audience’s guide and exhorted them to, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”

The Pope took that call seriously. His travels to Eastern Europe helped bring freedom to the Soviet bloc countries. During his trips to the West, he challenged and inspired youth and young adults at the World Youth Day gatherings. And his travels during the Jubilee year remain some of the most poignant of his pontificate.

The Fall of Communism

While the Pope’s visits were always pastoral, political change followed some of his visits, particularly to the Eastern European countries. The Pope’s second apostolic trip was to his native country, Poland, in June 1979. His speeches there undermined communism by expressing his support for the Solidarity workers’ movement. That support precipitated the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

In addition to seven visits to Poland, the Pope also visited the Eastern bloc countries of Albania, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia.

“I had been told that John Paul had never worked harder or waited longer for any other of his … trips … than he had for this Baltic tour,” wrote Robin Wright in The Atlantic Monthly just after the Pope’s trip in September 1993.

Wright explained how the Pope’s example inspired activists such as Nijole Sadunaite to resist Lithuania’s Soviet system.

“We were inspired because the Pope was someone who had escaped from the same system that was oppressing us,” Sadunaite told Wright.

Yet, the Holy Father did not entirely embrace the capitalism and all of its trappings. During a 1990, visit he warned Czechoslovakia not to replace communism with “secularism, indifference, hedonistic consumerism [and] practical materialism.”

Challenging the West

The Pope visited or passed through the U.S. seven times. They included his visits to Washington, D.C., New York, St. Louis and World Youth Day in Denver.

“The basic message on each of his pilgrimages was the call to holiness given to every baptized person,” said Cardinal Stafford. “He emphasized two elements – to love God who has given his only Son for us and to love one another because we are all in Christ as sons and daughters of God. He has called us to realize the universal call to holiness and has challenged us as Catholics to use the best of the American culture.”

“When he visited Washington in 1979 the challenge he offered us was to develop a culture of life,” said Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

Speaking on the National Mall, John Paul said, “Nothing surpasses the greatness or dignity of a human person,” and that the Church “will stand up every time that human life is threatened.”

When he met President Bill Clinton 14 years later in Denver, the Pope said the United States was a great country only to the extent that it respects every life, both born and unborn. He carried that message to young people, one group that the Holy Father’s travels always seemed to resonate with.

Sister John Paul with the Ann Arbor-based Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist told of her first encounter with Pope John Paul II as a junior high student. She went to see the Pope when he met Billy Graham at South Carolina’s Williams Brice Stadium on Sept. 11, 1987.

 “Most of the people were there to see Billy Graham, so when the Holy Father appeared there wasn’t much of a response. No one was yelling ‘We love the Pope,’” she said.

Therefore, Sister John Paul didn’t know what to expect when she went to World Youth Day in Denver six years later.

“Looking back at World Youth Day in Denver, what impacted me the most was how the Holy Father related to the young people,” said Sister John Paul. “We were all screaming, ‘John Paul II, we love you,’ and he grinned at us and replied, ‘John Paul II, he loves you.’ My vocation is a direct response to John Paul II’s presence in the Church and his call to the young people.”

Many viewed the World Youth Day gatherings as a papal highlight that will have a lasting impact.

Following Denver’s World Youth Day in Denver August of 1993, then-Archbishop Stafford had been invited to Rome for a meeting of the Plenarium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. After the meeting, Pope John Paul II greeted Archbishop Stafford in Italian.

“Ah! Denver, Denver, una rivoluzione! Una rivoluzione!” the Holy Father said with a wide smile.

Cardinal Stafford admitted that he wasn’t clear at first about the Pope’s use of the word “revolution.”

 “What had he meant when he said that the experience of the Denver World Youth Day was ‘a revolution’ for him?” he said.

The matter was cleared up later when Cardinal Stafford shared it with a member of the Papal Household, a priest who is a friend of the Holy Father.

“Before Denver, the Pope and members of the Roman Curia had looked towards the East for the renewal of the Church; he believed, Lux ex Oriente — light would be coming from the East,’” explained the priest. “But after his experience of young people in Denver, he now saw ‘that light would be dawning also from the West — Lux ex Occidente. That was the revolution! The light of Jesus had shown on the faces of those young Americans. I pray every day that the Pope’s revolution will come about.”

Jubilee Trips

Perhaps Pope John Paul’s most memorable trips were those he made during the Jubilee Year 2000. With considerable effort he made trips such as his 91st trip abroad, a trip which he had spoken of and prepared for since his earliest days — a trip to the Holy Land.

He traveled as both a peacemaker and a pilgrim. While there, he climbed the stairs at the Church of the Nativity to see the place where Christ was born. He visited the Jordan River, celebrated Mass where Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount, visited the place where Moses died, and placed a prayer at the Wailing Wall.

His prayer read, “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations. ... We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those, who, in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and, asking Your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. “

Pope John Paul II also became the first Pope to visit a Nazi concentration camp — Auschwitz — and to visit a Jewish synagogue, demonstrating the Vatican’s new relationship with the Jewish people.

Father Remi Hoeckman of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity said the Pope traveled in four ways — “as a pilgrim, as pastor of his Church visiting Catholic communities, as the Bishop of Rome visiting the heads of other religions, and as a Catholic visiting Jews.”

“He is a man who has made more contributions to Catholic-Jewish relations than any other pope in history,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser.

And few can forget the Pope’s May 12-13, 2000 visit to Fatima, Portugal. There, the bullet that had struck him had been welded into the Our Lady of Fatima statue’s crown. John Paul credits Our Lady of Fatima for diverting the assassin’s bullet that struck him in 1981.

With all the places the Pope visited, there was one he never made it to. His one unrealized visit was to Moscow.

Marked by illness and suffering, John Paul took his final trip to Lourdes, France on Aug. 14-15, 2004. Anticipating his own decline he told those gathered, “Dear brothers and sisters who are sick, how I would like to embrace each and every one of you with affection, to tell you how close I am to you and how much I support you.”

Perhaps the most commonly asked question is why the Holy Father chose to travel so much.

“He traveled because he knew the joy of living in the Lord and wanted to share that with others,” said Cardinal Stafford. “Others knew that he is a man of joy and wanted to be in his presence.”

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.