John Paul's Spiritual Testament
“Who left the door open?” asked the Pope's secretary to the few monsignori who accompanied John Paul II on his trip to Ireland in September 1979.
The Holy Father had a meeting with Ireland's prime minister and his administration. On his way through a corridor, the Pope had seen a small side room with the door open. He went in and spent half an hour inside, alone. It was a chapel. The Pope started his meeting with the Irish officials half an hour later.
“It was me who had left the door open,” Msgr. Renato Boccardo, currently a bishop and vice president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told me. “I learned my lesson for the following apostolic trips,” he added. “The Pope has a weakness for chapels. If he sees one, he would stay for a long time, without thinking much about what's next in the program.”
In the last quarter of a century, we all have sensed John Paul's “weakness” for the Eucharist. Who hasn't seen him on TV celebrating the Eucharist or kneeling before a tabernacle?
I have attended or concelebrated many of the Holy Father's Masses. The otherworldly fervor you see in the Pope's face on the television screen becomes much more striking when you're a few yards from him. His tightly closed eyes evince somehow his mystical union with God. Nothing seems to worry him. One feels the same desire that sprang in one of Jesus’ disciples after watching his master in prayer: “Lord, teach us how to pray” (Luke 11:1).
As the autobiographical stories of his book Gift and Mystery show, John Paul's love for the Eucharist was thriving throughout his years as a student, seminarian and priest. As bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla often spent hours in the chapel, preparing speeches and dealing with important episcopal work. Defying Communist authorities, he organized crowded Corpus Christi processions.
His papal lifestyle is also Eucharist-centered. The Pope begins and ends his day before the tabernacle. He reestablished the Corpus Christi processions in Rome.
“Whenever we prepare an apostolic trip,” Bishop Renato Boccardo declares, “he always tells us, ‘To me, the most important event is the celebration of the Eucharist with the people we visit. All the other meetings and activities are secondary and should be planned around the Masses.’”
These words echo the ones written in Gift and Mystery: “Celebrating the Eucharist is the most sublime and most sacred function of every priest. As for me, from the very first years of my priesthood, the celebration of the Eucharist has been not only my most sacred duty, but above all, my soul's deepest need.”
No doubt, John Paul's strength comes from his “weakness” for the Eucharist.
Karol Wojtyla's philosophical and literary works are centered on the mystery of man. Yet his anthropological concern coincides with his Christocentric spiritual life and pastoral ministry.
John Paul's favorite and most often quoted sentence from the Vatican Council explains it all: “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22). Man finds himself in Jesus Christ, the perfect man. “In the incarnate Word,” writes the Pope in his Oct. 7 apostolic letter
Mane Nobiscum, Domine (Stay With Us, Lord), “both the mystery of God and the mystery of man are revealed.”
The Redeemer of Man was the focal point of the Holy Father's mission to lead the faithful from the second millennium to the New Evangelization and springtime of the Church, as we find in the Great Jubilee's motto: “Christ, the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
Note the connection in the Pope's writings. His first encyclical was about the person of Christ, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man). Twenty-four years later, he published the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church in Relation to the Eucharist).
We find the same link in the Pope's first and latest messages to the Church: from his 1978 inaugural address (“Open the Door to Christ”) to his 2004 apostolic letter (“Stay With Us, Lord”).
Jesus Christ is the “alpha” and “omega” of this pontificate.
Yes, the final point, too. We hope John Paul II will stay with us for a long time. But time goes by inexorably and, sooner or later, he will be called to the Father's house. No matter how many years lie ahead for him, he has consciously begun walking in the sunset of his pontificate.
On the Way
In the past 18 months, the Pope has taken initiatives of wide-ranging scope on the theme of the Eucharist: his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia; his endorsement to the Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (The Sacrament of Redemption) on certain matters to be observed or avoided regarding the Eucharist; the International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico; the convocation of the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the theme “The Eucharist, Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church”; his apostolic letter Mane Nobiscum, Domine; and the proclamation of the Year of the Eucharist.
The focus on this topic is neither a break nor a novelty in John Paul's papal ministry. “A Eucharistic initiative of this kind had been on my mind for some time,” reveals the Pope in his letter, speaking about the Year of the Eucharist. “It is a natural development of the pastoral impulse which I wanted to give to the Church, particularly during the years of preparation for the Jubilee and in the years that followed it.”
In effect, John Paul II has insistently invited us to contemplate the face of Christ, particularly in his pro-grammatic apostolic letters: Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near, 1994); Dies Domini (The Lord's Day, 1998); Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium, 2001); Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, 2002); and Mane Nobiscum, Domine (Stay With Us, Lord, 2004).
Naturally, the face of Christ is best contemplated in the Eucharist. There, the Son of God is really present — body, soul and divinity.
“Christ, ‘the living bread which came down from heaven,’ is the only one who can satisfy man's hunger at all times and in all parts of the earth,” the Pope said at this year's Corpus Christi Mass celebrated in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
In the sacrament of love, the second person of the Trinity is, literally, the Emmanuel — “God with us.” There, he walks with us and stays with us, as he did 2,000 years ago, when two men walked toward Emmaus in the sunset of a sad, awful day.
I believe the Holy Father, aware that he is walking in his own pontificate's sunset, felt the need to leave us now his spiritual testament. Significantly, the Year of the Eucharist began the day after the 26th anniversary of his election as the Vicar of Christ.
A testament is the expression of a personal disposition of one's own belongings. Yet one may write his or her own will long before death knocks at the door. I think the Pope is writing his will, not as a goodbye declaration, but as a legacy. He is pointing out where lies the key to our triumph over our spiritual enemies, as well as to the Church's triumph over the dark process of secularization.
John Paul II has used such a powerful key throughout his life. Now, in the sunset of his life and papal ministry, he is telling us: “Stay with the Lord. He will make you understand the Scriptures. He will give you the bread of life. The Eucharist is the source of light, strength, holiness, consolation, salvation, apostolic fruitfulness. Invite the Lord to stay with you, for it is almost evening (see Luke 24:29).”
Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. Email him at [email protected]
- Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2004