10 Ways John Paul II was an Extraordinary Gift to the Church
COMMENTARY: These distinctive marks of Pope St. John Paul II’s papacy commemorate the 10 decades since his birth.
The typical Polish Happy Birthday song is Sto Lat, the lyrics of which translate into English as “100 years, 100 years, may he/she live, live for us 100 years.” It’s a prayerful wish that the one being celebrated will have a long, healthy life. It was intoned by Polish pilgrims regularly when they were with Pope St. John Paul II in the Vatican, especially but not exclusively around his birthday.
On May 18, all of those well wishes chanted over the decades for him will come true, as we mark the centenary of his birth.
The baby born Karol Wojtyla now experiences, as his canonization affirms, a life far greater than the extension of days on earth, dwelling in a house not made by human hands, prepared for him by the One whom he served as earthly vicar (2 Corinthians 5:1, John 14:3). While we are not privy to how such events are observed where even “a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8), it is fitting here on earth to mark the day with gratitude to God, reflection on the meaning of John Paul II’s life and our own, and prayers through his intercession.
Saints are gifts of God to the people of each age. They show us how to live. They teach us how to love. They help us learn to die. They reveal to us our exalted origin, dignity and destiny. They make the life of faith attractive and Christian hope realistic. They are not just exemplars of heroic virtue but mediators, praying for us that we might follow their footsteps as they followed Christ’s.
While saints are always consequential figures in the real, real world, even if hidden to most human eyes, John Paul II’s life has had an enormous impact in what also makes history books, most notably the role he played in the fall of Soviet communism. His impact within the Church, in implementing the teachings and authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and leading the Church through various ideological storms that were buffeting the Church from within and without, was perhaps even greater.
I had the joy to get to observe him up close during my years in Rome as a seminarian and young priest. I participated in hundreds of liturgies and audiences with him, attended the institute founded by and named after him, and had a chance to speak to him on 11 occasions. He gave me a nickname, “Gemello Americano” (American twin), extended great pastoral advice as I was preparing to return to the States, enthusiastically blessed my parents on their 30th wedding anniversary and mischievously imposed hands on my head as photos were being taken seven months before he died. Like so many in my generation who received vocations to the priesthood during his papacy, I didn’t have to look hard for a priestly role model. Except for sacred Scripture, his writings have had the greatest influence in forming the way I look at the world and the Church.
In honor of his 10 decades, I’d like to focus on 10 distinctive marks of his papacy that have deeply impacted the life of the Church and her engagement with the world.
He was the pope of the universal call to holiness, re-proposing to all the high standard of ordinary Christian living. During his 26 years and seven months as the successor of St. Peter, he canonized from all walks of life 482 saints and beatified 1,327, more than all his predecessors from the previous five centuries combined.
He was the pope of theological anthropology. He took the Second Vatican Council’s teachings that Christ reveals the meaning and supreme vocation of human life and that we will only discover who we are through the unselfish gift of ourselves toward others (Gaudium et Spes, 22, 24) and spent his papacy elaborating that connection. His first encyclical, Christ the Redeemer of Man, laid out the leitmotif of his papacy, describing, in response to the reductive understandings of the human person that have led to so much confusion and destruction — communism, individualism, subjectivism, materialism, empiricism, relativism, racism, chauvinism and other “isms” — the full understanding of the person revealed and redeemed by Christ, body and soul, male and female. He chartered the path of Christian humanism.
He was the pope of courage. His repeated echo of Jesus’ “Be not afraid!” in his inaugural Mass homily characterized the whole of his life and papacy. He boldly helped establish and act in the Rhapsodic Theater as a young man under Nazi occupation. As a priest and bishop he helped the Polish people remain intrepid during Soviet oppression. As pope, he was constantly urging people to “put out into the deep,” and led by example, in boldly and prudently opposing dictators and evil.
He was the pope of human love in the divine plan. As a young priest, he said, he “fell in love with human love” and spent the rest of his priesthood trying to “introduce love into love,” namely Christ’s agape into the experience of human eros. Whereas many priests and bishops still today are afraid to talk about love, marriage, sex and family, he did so with great confidence, appeal and effectiveness. He gave university lectures, wrote his landmark Love and Responsibility, authored plays, poems and articles on the dynamics of betrothed love, established interdisciplinary diocesan commissions on marriage, wrote and delivered his catecheses on the theology of the body, published a tremendous exhortation on the Christian family in the modern world (Familiaris Consortio) in 1981 and the Letter to Families, met with newlyweds after every general audience, and established at the Lateran University the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family.
He was a Marian pope. His papal motto, Totus Tuus, was taken from St. Louis de Montfort’s prayer of total consecration to Mary and he consecrated the world to her immaculate heart on March 25, 1984. He gave her credit for saving his life with her maternal hand after his assassination attempt on her feast day, presenting the bullet that pierced five vital organs to her in Fatima one year later. He proclaimed a Marian year and wrote Mother of the Redeemer, fulfilling the Second Vatican Council’s call for a more Scripture-based Mariology. He prayed the Rosary continuously between appointments, gave us the Luminous Mysteries, declared a Year of the Rosary and taught us how to pray the Rosary better in his exhortation The Rosary of the Virgin Mary. He put the first Marian image, Mother of the Church, in St. Peter’s Square.
He was the pope of youth, founding the World Youth Days in 1985, meeting with young people on every foreign trip and responding to their questions, hosting regular audiences with young people in the Vatican, writing a profound letter to the young people of the world in 1985, and regularly speaking to bishops and priests about how to be more effective youth ministers, through identifying and appealing to what is perennial rather than faddish in young people.
He was the pope of life, battling the culture of death and helping the Church not be ashamed to proclaim and live her teachings on the sanctity of every human life at a time in which elites were promoting abortion as a paragon of freedom, and communist countries as a means of population control. His 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life remains the greatest pro-life manifesto of all time.
He was the pope of evangelization. He made 104 foreign trips, logging 700,000 miles, more than all of his predecessors combined and three times the distance of a round trip to the moon. He felt a divine vocation, he said, to be a “pilgrim pope of evangelization,” doing “traveling catechesis,” hoping to stir up the enter Church to take up the “new evangelization,” a phrase he himself coined.
He was the pope of holy years. The Polish bishops in 1966 had a jubilee to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in their country and he saw how such jubilees could renew the Church. As pope, he had special jubilees to focus on the 1950th anniversary of our Redemption (1983), Mary (1987), The Holy Spirit (1998), God the Father (1999), Christ the Redeemer (2000), the Rosary (2003-4) and the Eucharist (2004-5). The Church has continued these helpful thematic years since, with the Year of St. Paul (2008-9), Priests (2009-10), Faith (2012-13) and Mercy (2015-6).
He was the pope of suffering. He endured Mehmet Ali Agca’s assassination attempt in 1981, bone breaks and several years on public display with Parkinson’s disease, becoming one of the modern world’s most well-known images of perseverance in a euthanizing age. His 1984 exhortation on the Christian meaning of human suffering (Salvifici Doloris), in which he said God permits suffering to “unleash love in the human person,” remains the greatest theological window into the mystery of suffering ever produced.
As we mark the 100th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s birth, we thank God for all the blessings he gave him and, through him, all of us. We pray through his intercession that we may build on those foundations — and with him live 100 years and more.
- pope john paul ii