43 Years Ago and Today, John Paul II Urges Us: ‘Be Not Afraid’
John Paul’s joy and courage never wavered because he was not their source — Christ was.
The world says it wants you to be fierce. Daily planners and coffee mugs enjoin you to “own your day” and bumper stickers command you to “speak truth to power.”
It’s all a lie.
The world wants you afraid. The Father of Lies, whose only field of operation is our fallen world, wants you afraid. Alas for him, aside from having already lost the war, he is at a stark disadvantage as he fights. He cannot create — he can only distort. He cannot replace virtue with anything of his own, so he is forced to adapt, to twist the world’s definition of good to suit his needs. Our world still values courage — thus you must never think you are actually living in fear. You must feel as though you are indeed being bold and empowered while you cower.
It is insidious fear, whispering lies, that tells a woman she must be able to kill her own child, and that she cannot succeed without that right — but the world says it is empowerment.
It is fear that is preventing an entire generation from committing to marriage and family — the world applauds their free-spiritedness.
It is fear of engaging in the world that keeps perfectly healthy individuals living in their two-dimensional bubble behind a Zoom screen — but it has been rebranded as heroic action.
Fortunately, as he has throughout the millennia, God gave the world a saint for such a skittish time as this.
On Oct. 22, 1978, 43 years ago today, Pope St. John Paul II, then the newly-elected Vicar of Christ, looked out at the throng gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his inaugural Mass, and urged them: “Be not afraid.” These words would become a familiar refrain in his papacy, but in reality, they had long defined his life, and would so until his death in 2005. St. John Paul II was fearless. When he defied the Nazis as part of the Polish cultural resistance, when he spoke tirelessly against the evils of Communism, when he forgave his would-be assassin, and when he spent his final years succumbing to illness, his courage never faltered.
For the nearly three decades he led the Catholic Church, John Paul II’s bold proclamation of the faith loomed larger than life, a vibrant witness in a world battered by a century of global wars and genocides. His joy and courage never wavered because he was not their source. Christ was. In that first homily of his papacy, he aptly captured the cultural despair of a post-Christian world, and pointed to the antidote:
“So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”
Throughout his life, John Paul II fought back against a world broken by fear and despair. His life and legacy exist as a great refutation of Satan’s lies and fear mongering. Notably however, he did not dwell frequently on the enemy in his words, though he was always aware of the threat. Instead, with unwavering faith in the Resurrection, he lived his life in tremendous joy, even through his long years of suffering and illness.
John Paul II had seen evil in action. He knew precisely where the weakness and violence of men could lead. But he also knew to whom the victory already belonged, and he had no time to waste living in a prison of fear. Moreover, he had no interest in seeing anyone else fall into such snares. Speaking to a crowd of young people in 1999, John Paul II encouraged them:
“Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. … Do not be afraid to be holy! Have the courage and humility to present yourselves to the world determined to be holy, since full, true freedom is born from holiness. This aspiration will help you discover genuine love, untainted by selfish and alienating permissiveness.”
In these troubled times — and no, they are not unprecedented, for plagues, wars, injustices and hedonism are not unique to our age — we can thank God for the witness of St. John Paul II, and for the reminder that the victory has already been won.