Forty years ago today, less than a week after his election as Pope, St. John Paul II proclaimed perhaps the most famous and lasting words of his lengthy pontificate: “Be not afraid!”

Many people mistakenly believe that John Paul uttered those words on the evening of his Oct. 16, 1978, election, where he first greeted the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember that day very well, as I was a junior at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we received the news while in class, six hours behind Rome time.

John Paul II won over the multitude gathered in St. Peter’s Square that first evening with his self-deprecating sense of humor: “Though I’m unsure of expressing myself in your—in our Italian language,” the Polish Pope told the people gathered, quickly correcting himself with a smile as the first non-Italian Successor of St. Peter in 455 years. “Should I falter you will me correct,” the pontiff added in an intentional grammatical faux pas to the crowd’s laughter and cheers (11:50ff.).

St. John Paul did tell the assembled crowd that he had fears in accepting his election, yet revealed the antidote in the very first public words of his pontificate. “Praised be Jesus Christ,” he proclaimed to the assembled crowd (8:35). Indeed, as he added shortly thereafter, the new pontiff addressed his fears by accepting his election in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and to his Blessed Mother (10:59ff.)

Six days later, and fittingly on World Mission Sunday, St. John Paul II spoke the words that would frame his pontificate during his inauguration Mass homily:

The new Successor of Peter in the See of Rome, today makes a fervent, humble and trusting prayer: Christ, make me become and remain the servant of your unique power, the servant of your sweet power, the servant of your power that knows no eventide. Make me be a servant. Indeed, the servant of your servants.

Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ's power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Be not afraid. Christ knows “what is in man.” He alone knows it.

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.

Precisely today the whole Church is celebrating “World Mission Day”; that is, she is praying, meditating and acting in order that Christ's words of life may reach all people and be received by them as a message of hope, salvation and total liberation (4-5, emphases added).

We should not be afraid because Jesus is the eternal Son of the living God who became man for our redemption and salvation (John 3:16-17), “the ultimate and definitive truth about man” (2) in whom we can do all things (Philippians 4:13), who will perfect us in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8-10), and who gives us the peace that the world cannot give, and yet who calls us to share that peace with that same world (John 14:27).

Buoyed by the love and zeal of his Savior, St. John Paul II was not afraid in speaking to millions less than a year later in Communist Poland, helping set in motion events that would not only liberate his native land but Communist Eastern Europe in general. He was not afraid in withstanding an assassin’s bullets in May 1981 and in exemplifying Christ’s merciful love in forgiving his would-be killer; or in carrying the cross of Parkinson’s disease that ravaged his body over the last decade of his pontificate. And he was not afraid in sharing the Gospel around the world for more than 26 years, including disciplining wayward theologians and laying the groundwork for the Church’s response to the clerical sexual abuse scourge.

Much has changed since 1978. Given the redefinition of marriage around the globe, the associated decline of the family, the rise of skepticism and atheism, and the backlash Catholics are experiencing because of renewed concern about clerical sexual abuse, St. John Paul II’s exhortation to be not afraid is more pressing than ever. We must remember that the Church’s mission cannot be nullified by leaders who betray it, because it is a mission that Christ entrusted to the Church and therefore one which he himself safeguards (Matthew 28:18-20; 16:18-19).

And so we face our mission with serene courage, Lord Jesus help us, in charitably opposing the wisdom of the world on behalf of the world, knowing that it is Jesus Christ who “alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life” and thus “a message of hope, salvation and total liberation” for all (John 8:31-32; 11:25-27; John 14:6).