May 18 is the 100th anniversary of St Pope John II. In fact, Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18 1920 in Wadowice, Poland.
He was elected Bishop of Rome in 1978, died in 2005, and canonized in 2014. John Paul II’s pontificate was the second longest one in modern history, after, of course, the pontificate of Blessed Pope Pius IX which lasted almost some thirty-two years, precisely from 1846 till 1878, which is tantamount to 31 years, 7 months and 23 days. Infact the pontificate of St John Paul lasted 26 years, 5 months and 18 days.
Pope Wojtyla’s petrine ministry broke many records. But, numbers apart, the leadership of the Polish Pope led the Catholic Church through many rising challenges in post-modern times. Its first achievement was the fight for freedom. A recurrent motto of John Paul II was Don’t be afraid! One of the greatest challenges was the Cold War, and the two blocs that practically set the world against each other. John Paul II had suffered personally from both the Nazi and Communist regimes’ oppression. Hence, his role was foundational in the eventual collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. One of his first trips he made was to his native Poland, way back in 1979. This trip greatly encouraged Poles to fight for freedom.
John Paul II’s next achievement was that his papacy was really global. Karol Wojyla was an experienced traveler. Thanks to his Spirit-given skill he managed to reach all corners of the world. He effected some 104 international trips, and visited 130 countries. In mileage terms, he went around the world 30 times. But there were two countries he did not manage to visit, China and Russia. The third achievement brought about by John Paul’s papacy was the dialogue with Muslims and Jews. He liked to refer to Jews as “older brothers.” He was the first Vicar of Christ on earth to step inside a synagogue since Jesus’ era. Furthermore, the Holy Father prayed before the Western Wall. John Paul was even the first Pope to kiss a Koran, and step inside a mosque.
The following achievement of his petrine ministry was surely the Assisi gathering. It was John Paul II who spurred inter-religious dialogue by gathering the leaders of world religions to pray for peace in Assisi, the city of our seraphic father St Francis. The first joint prayer event took place in 1986. His paternal call for world peace was lovingly heeded by 150 delegates hailing from 12 religions. The fifth achievement of his papacy can be spelled out to be his adamant no to war! As a matter of fact, during his flourishing pontificate, the world sufferred from several major armed conflicts like Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan, Iraq and the Balkan wars. Knowing what it means to live and experience war first-hand, since he survived the Second World War, Pope John Paul II, from the rooftop of his petrine ministry, staunchly and persistently stood his ground to oppose any violence whatsover. He used to say: War, never again.
This great Polish Pontiff understood very well the Vatican Council’s message concerning the universal call to holiness. Himself an active participant in this very important Council of the Church, he kept proclaiming countless number of saints who have much to tell us about holiness in our current times. He was the first Pope who beatified together a married couple by the name of Luigi and Maria Beltrame. Pope John Paul II’s seventh achievement closely links him with women. Indeed, he was the first Pontiff who wrote an apostolic letter entirely dedicated to women, entitled Mulieris Dignitatem. In this beautiful and instructive letter the Pope exhorted women to reflect deeply on their personal, cultural, social as well as ecclesiastical duties.
Marking his eight achievement is undoubtedly the dignity of the sick. John Paul II was a sick person himself. Having said that, and no matter of the fact that his sickness weakened his impressive health, he was determined to pursue his petrine ministry with utmost vigour till its last drop. This wise Pope made use of his personal experience to educate a world which was already at the mercy of the desplicable “throw-away” culture.
St John Paul II built his papacy on Christ, the rock, not only because he prayed incessantly but also because he put into practice Jesus’ teachings, especially that of forgiveness. He publicly forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who shot him on May 13 1981. Also, in the Jubilee of the Year 2000, this exceptionally courageous Pope had the guts of officially apologizing for the Catholic Church’s past errors. Such a historic moment was clearly one of purification of memory and liberating too since Christians could enter the Third Millenium with a humble heart open to God’s infinite and surprising graces.
Finally, his last achievement as Pope was his special charism for young people. As the Bishop of Rome John Paul II recognized that young people direly needed proper care and protection. He introduced a specific gathering that is especially dedicated to them: World Youth Day. The Holy Father confessed that he felt like one of them in the crowd, so much so that he said: If you live with youth, you have to become young.
As from his death this Polish Pope was being referred to as “John Paul the Great”. A case in point would be the acclaimed reference Cardinal Angelo Sodano made of him as he read his homily for the Pope’s funeral Mass of Repose: “John Paul II, John Paul the Great.” His humanity was such a powerful element in his holy life. How passionate he was for life and the arts! Poetry and drama were his very life! Before being ordained a priest he was an actor and composed a play. However, his humanity led him from the library of books to the library of human experiences. With how much love Karol Wojtyla used to recount his experience as a worker and a “clandestine” seminarian. He said: In the factory, while doing my eight-hour shift, day and night, I took some books with me. My fellow workmen were a bit surprised but not scandalized. His closeness with the people was truly remarkable. He enjoyed laughing and was widely known for hugging people. He wasn’t afraid! His strong faith was really impressive. Pope John Paul II was a man of profound faith who relied on God. His faith matured him so much that he would joke on his health problems too! He said: As you can see you have somewhat of a ‘slow’ Pope … ‘slow’ but still not ‘defeated’.
The achievement and greatness of St John Paul II, as the book by Patrick Novecosky, titled 100 Ways John Paul Changed the World, and published by Our Sunday Visitor, which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Polish Pontiff’s birth, presents a Pope whose faith was uncompromising, even to those who disagreed with him. He used to confront politicians whose policies did not protect life without reservations. For instance, he told the United Nations in 1995 that it must “safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.” “No one,” he said, “is permitted to suppress those rights by using coercive power to impose an answer to the mystery of man.”
Dear Saint John Paul II, come to our aid so that, within the Church and outside her precincts, we keep championing the Gospel and human values as you always did! With Pope Benedict XVI, your successor, and Pope Francis, the current Pontiff, whom you created as Cardinal, we ardently remind you: Pray for us!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap