Catholics Remember St. John Paul II’s Personal Impact on Inaugural Feast

The ‘Pope of the Family’ touched the hearts of millions, and he continues to inspire as the Church celebrates his saintly feast for the first time.

WASHINGTON — As the universal Church celebrates St. John Paul II’s feast day for the very first time, Catholics from all walks of life note the saint’s influence on them personally and his challenge to proclaim the Gospel in their lives.

St. John Paul II served the Church as pope from 1978 to 2005 — the third-longest reign of any bishop of Rome — exerting a profound influence on the Church and its direction in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The saint’s Oct. 22 feast day shows that his influence continues to echo in the lives of the faithful.

“I think St. John Paul II deeply affected a whole generation by sharing with us a sense of fearlessness in the face of a world that sought to trivialize the relevance of our faith,” said Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Yale-trained neuroscientist and director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

“He traveled; he wrote; he acted; he spoke of great themes and challenges; he confronted; he inspired us to seek God and holiness; he uplifted; he led the Church and humanity in prayer,” he added. “Ultimately, he was a sign of faithful clarity in a troubled time and a steadfast beacon of hope.”  

St. John Paul II began his pontificate with the famous words, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” and set a tone that his successors, Benedict XVI and Francis, carried into their pontificates.

But the impact is seen most clearly in the faithful for whom the saint’s teaching resonated.

Part of that is reflected in the name John Paul that parents, touched by the saint’s words and example, gave their children.

“It’s quite gratifying, for me anyway, to finally have a true patron saint feast day, considering that my patron saint was alive for most of the first portion of my life,” quipped John Paul Connolly, 28, a husband and father of three children in Front Royal, Va. Connolly, a Chicago native and the second of 10 children, said his parents had a “great admiration for the pope and his charismatic leadership” and decided to give their first son that name.

Connolly, who takes an active role in local civic life, said St. John Paul II has been a “good role model” for him. The pope’s own example and enunciation of the “missionary call” of the laity to communities outside of those they agree with challenges him day to day.

“There’s still a missionary call in our own lives and our own communities, and that is going to influence the actions that we take, and it’s going to influence our willingness to serve in all things,” he said. “Are you going to do that little bit extra out of love for your neighbor at work — picking up some extra hours for them? Are you going to consider doing something for the community that you might not have considered doing before?

“The point is not to stay where we are comfortable, but to move forward and encounter Christ.”


Educators Celebrate

The saint’s mark can also be seen on the U.S. Catholic educational landscape, where Catholic grade schools, high schools and institutions of higher learning bear his name.

“The feast day is an opportunity to reflect on his teaching overall — globally and not just related to marriage and family,” said David Crawford, an associate professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington.

The institute was established in 1988, and Crawford said it was one of the signs that showed how important St. John Paul II viewed marriage and the family.

“He said before his death that he wanted to be known as the pope of the family,” Crawford added.

Crawford pointed out that while traditional Church teaching believed that marriage was a vocation to holiness, before St. John Paul II, the call to holiness was far more emphasized with respect to the priesthood and religious vocations.

“He brought to the surface the idea of marriage and family as a means of Christian perfection,” he said.

He said most of the faculty and some students are expected to celebrate the saint’s first feast day with a Mass at the new St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington.

A similar celebration is poised to happen on the West Coast, at John Paul the Great University in California, where the students and professors are gathering to celebrate Mass together to honor their patron, capping off a nine-day novena.

“The students are very excited about it,” said Derry Connolly, the president and founder of the university, which has a special focus on preparing students for media and business careers as well as those in biblical theology.

“The thing that sticks out [with St. John Paul II] is the New Evangelization,” he said. He noted that many people today are trapped in a video-game culture or a pornography culture and that poses a challenge for Catholics in media trying to evangelize overtly or covertly.

“There are things that are totally enabled by the same tools that John Paul calls us to evangelize with,” he said. “So [the question is]: How do you reach people who are entrenched in things that are totally evil, and how can you use the same tools to touch their hearts and get them to ask the questions about God? I think that’s the thing we carried away from John Paul.”


Personal Encounters

For Edyth Triana, a Mexican-American living in Alabama’s Birmingham metro area, the feast of St. John Paul II is the day her newborn son, Juan Pablo, will be baptized.

“My husband and I both really identified with St. John Paul II,” the mother of four said.

She first saw St. John Paul as a little girl in Mexico, when he came to celebrate Mass at the village that was also the hometown of her future husband, Ricardo.

“We went to the Mass with St. John Paul, and he was amazing. We loved him for all that he taught us about life and the family,” she added. “We loved how he said that the family that prays together will always be together.”

Triana said that she and her husband had a different day for their child’s baptism set, but they changed the date after they found out the saint’s feast-day date by reading ahead in their daily Mass books. She said their pastor, Father Thomas Kelly, at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, told them it was a “good day to baptize him” and that he would do so during Mass, so people could celebrate the feast by receiving the Eucharist.

“We can’t be more blessed. It’s his saint, it’s his feast day, and it’s going to be his spiritual birthday,” she said.

Personal encounters with St. John Paul II, going all the way back to 1969, awakened the desire to serve Jesus Christ as a priest in Polish-American Father Kazimierz Chwalek, provincial superior of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy province in Stockbridge, Mass.

Father Chwalek first encountered the saint at 17, serving Mass for him at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in 1969, when his name was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow.

“I was impressed by the way he made himself available to people,” Father Chwalek said. He became a foreign-exchange student in Krakow, where he began listening to Cardinal Wojtyla’s homilies, studying his talks, writings and example to actively live out his faith.

“I could feel his deep love for Christ and for people,” he added. “It was clear that he wanted to help them come to know the truth and joy of the Gospel.”


‘My Model of Priestly Service’

Father Chwalek continued his graduate studies at the Catholic University of Lublin — the university where St. John Paul II once taught and has since been renamed for him — when Cardinal Wojtyla became John Paul II. That day of Oct. 16, 1978, was decisive in his life.

“The quiet longing to become a priest grew into a strong desire to follow Christ, with John Paul as my model of priestly service,” he said. The Pope’s pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 confirmed it once and for all.

“I will never forget his opening prayer: a powerful cry for the Holy Spirit to come and renew the face of the earth — to renew Poland and the whole world,” he said. “Chills of joy and expectation filled my heart.”

“It was an experience that deepened my understanding of what Church really is and confirmed my longing to follow Christ,” he said.

The following year, he entered the Marian seminary. While the saint made a personal impact on his life and ministry, Father Chawalek believes St. John Paul II’s feast day provides Catholics an opportunity to encounter a saint who can impact their lives profoundly.

“John Paul II is someone who can guide the people of today to come to know the true God in the mystery of the Trinity, as the God of love and mercy, and to understand themselves more deeply, their path of live and their glorious destiny.”

 Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.