Pope John Paul II: The Catholic Church’s Mr. October

COMMENTARY: The Polish Pontiff gave the world one ‘Fall Classic’ after another.

Pope John Paul II prays during the canonization of Saint Edith Stein - also known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross,  the Jewish-born nun killed by the Nazis in an Auschwitz gas chamber in 1942, in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square Sunday, Oct. 11, 1998.
Pope John Paul II prays during the canonization of Saint Edith Stein - also known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the Jewish-born nun killed by the Nazis in an Auschwitz gas chamber in 1942, in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square Sunday, Oct. 11, 1998. (photo: Andrew Medichini / AP)

VATICAN CITY — It has been a long October in Rome, with the grueling Synod on Synodality winding down after more than three weeks. For me, it was something of a personal milestone. 

I began covering the Vatican for the Register in October 1998 — 25 years ago. So it was good to be back with my Register and EWTN colleagues for an anniversary of sorts.

October in Rome has its own character. The hot Roman summer abates. The Roman universities start classes, so seminarians are back in the city. There are usually canonizations scheduled (though not this year), and so happy pilgrims make their way through the streets. And then there are the synods. For decades, the periodic synods of bishops have usually been held in October.

They used to be rather happy occasions, bringing a bit of cheerful bustle to the Vatican. Even if the proceedings inside the synod hall were dull, that was only a problem for those in attendance. For the rest of ecclesial Rome, it was something of a convivial reunion. Now, though, synod Octobers have become rather burdensome things, fractious meetings that perplex the faithful rather than proclaim the faith.

The planetary session of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church was especially unpleasant in that respect, with daily discussions about whether this or that matter — already discussed for decades — should be discussed differently in a different round of discussions. Women deacons again? Groundhog Day is in February, but the cinematic version could have been set this month in Rome.

There was a striking juxtaposition this October, for it marked the 45th anniversary of the election of St. John Paul the Great, as Pope Francis calls him. The election was on Oct. 16, 1978, and the inaugural “Be Not Afraid” Mass was on Oct. 22. The latter date is now John Paul II’s feast day. 

There were some minor commemorations in Rome. A new book of diary entries from the late Joaquin Navarro-Valls, John Paul’s press spokesman, trusted adviser and close friend, was published. 

October under John Paul was something more, something grand. 

George Weigel, the late Holy Father’s authoritative biographer, wrote from this synod on the election anniversary an entry about Yogi Berra, the Yankee great from the 1950s. It was about his famous phrase, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” See above on discussions.

I had in mind instead the Yankee great of the 1970s, Reggie Jackson. The slugger won three straight World Series with the Oakland A’s (1972-1974) and consecutive championships in New York (1977-1978). Indeed, John Paul was elected during the 1978 World Series, the last of Reggie’s home-run-hitting triumphs.

Reggie’s nickname was Mr. October. In the 1970s, if it was October, and Reggie was playing, it was fun to watch. 

John Paul was the Catholic Church’s Mr. October, or better, Father October. When he was in office, and it was October, it was fun to watch — and to be inspired.

In October 1978 was the election, followed by the “Be Not Afraid” homily that changed the Church and pointed history in a new direction.

In October 1979 was his trip to the United States, where the “John Paul Superstar” impact was felt in the caput mundi. The Holy Father offered Mass at Yankee Stadium, as did St. Paul VI before him — the first papal Mass in the new world. Pope Benedict XVI would also offer Holy Mass in Yankee Stadium. (Pope Francis declined to do so when he visited New York.) At Yankee Stadium, the great Yankees are commemorated with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of Yankees-only Hall of Fame. Yogi and Reggie are there, as are Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, marking their visits.

In October 1982, John Paul canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe, the “patron saint of our difficult century.” It was just one of many happy October Sundays when John Paul proclaimed new saints for the Church.

In October 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released, arguably the most significant Catholic development after Vatican II — and the enduring legacy of the John Paul/Joseph Ratzinger collaboration, one of the most decisive partnerships in the entire history of the Church.

In October 1993, Veritatis Splendor was released (though dated for Aug. 6). That encyclical recast the entirety of the Christian moral life in light of the biblical encounter with Jesus Christ and against the horizon of the witness of the martyrs. It will remain relevant for a century. 

In October 1994, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the written interview book with Vittorio Messori, was released, taking the publishing world by storm. An international bestseller in many languages, it was a model of the New Evangelization — the Church’s premier witness offering his own testimony. Being a Catholic was a blessed, not burdensome, thing, John Paul declared. And the world listened. 

In October 1996, cardinals, bishops and priests from around the world headed to Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of John Paul’s priestly ordination. It was a magnificent celebration, leading to the publication of the memoir on his priestly vocation, Gift and Mystery.

In October 1997, John Paul declared St. Thérèse of Lisieux a doctor of the Church to mark the centenary of her death. Millions of Little Flower devotees received this as a heavenly rose for their piety and doctrine. It would be the first of three Teresian Octobers. 

In October 1998, John Paul celebrated the 20th anniversary his papal election. He humbly examined his conscience, publicly asking whether he “had done enough” to ensure that “when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith on earth.”

The October 1998 celebrations were built around two great events — the canonization of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), killed at Auschwitz, and the publication of Fides et Ratio (dated for Sept. 14). The encyclical on faith and reason emerged from his own scholarly life and was exemplified by the Jewish philosopher who converted and became a Carmelite martyr. It was another of the great John Paul/Ratzinger collaborations.

In October 2000, the Great Jubilee, John Paul entrusted the whole world to Our Lady of Fatima as he fulfilled his mission of leading the Church into the third millennium, something only possible because of the Blessed Mother’s intercession at the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981.

In October 2003, John Paul celebrated his 25th anniversary of his election. It was, by then, a valedictory, but he declined to take a victory lap. Instead, he put the focus on Mother Teresa, whom he beatified in the third of the Teresian Octobers. 

October in Rome is a special time. It was a beautiful thing to be in Rome then, when Father October gave us one “Fall Classic” after another.