How does one possibly “reflect” on the life and pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II in just a few pages? I dare say it is easy to give a list of his earthly “achievements” as Pope, as I will do later in the reflection, but one can never truly know fully the depth of a human person, because we are limited, finite creatures and only the Infinite, Omnipotent Creator can truly see into the depth of the beauty of His most splendid of creatures – the human person. I guess if I had to choose one area I remember most about Pope St. John Paul II it would be his championing the reality and beauty of the dignity of the human person. I believe his entire life, including his priesthood and pontificate flowed from this one indisputable teaching – that we are God’s beloved children and He Created us beautiful, holy, innocent in original unity and solitude. His philosophical and theological understanding, teaching and views all flowed from the fact that we are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father and that our way of thinking, speaking and living should flow from this deepest and most important fact about ourselves – who we truly are and the truth of who God is. I believe he received this beautiful anthropology from two places in his life: his experience of the Cross – his own and the suffering of others, and his direct prayer life and relationship with God in the Blessed Sacrament.
Born Karol Josef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920 on the day of the “Polish Miracle” when Marshal Josef (for whom he was named) Piludski defeated the young and still weak Soviet Union and took the city of Kiev to restore, albeit briefly, Poland’s independence. Karol’s youth while promising was marred by the tragic death of his infant sister, before his own birth, but his first profound loss was to be that of his mother. She died in 1929 of heart and kidney problems just before his ninth birthday. Then just a few years later at the age of 12, his 26 year old brother Edmund died of scarlet fever. By 12 years old all he had was his father, Karol a former tailor and military officer, who tried to be both father and mother to little Karol. He made his First Holy Communion at the age of 9 and Confirmation at 18. Most people don’t know that he had two brushes with death from being hit by a car, which would cause him a slight stoop his whole life.
Young Karol was growing into a rather talented athlete on the soccer field, ski slopes and hiking trails, but his real love was for acting on the theater. He loved religion, which he learned from his pious father, poetry and the theater. He helped form the Rhapsodic Theater Company, which gave mostly underground, clandestine productions during the Nazi invasion of Poland. He also participated in poetry readings, literary discussions, acting and even some singing. But, everything changed by 1939-1940. The Nazi’s wanted to wipe out Polish language, culture, music and art, even Chopin’s music was forbidden. Karol had to watch his childhood friends disappear and his father die. To avoid deportation to Germany, he worked in a rock quarry and chemical factory from 1940-44. Little did he know this was all part of God’s master plan for him. He began to study in the underground seminary and later at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow for Cardinal Sapieha who ordained him on November 1, 1946. He undoubtedly was learning the dignity of the human person through his own losses and tragedies and those of the millions of his countrymen.
By July 3, 1947 he would earn a licentiate in theology and a Master’s Degree in Theology and Doctorate in Sacred Theology on December 16, 1948. All this studying and learning, at the request of the Primate Of Poland Cardinal Sapieha, would serve him well as pope. He would come to learn how to minister to people and, specifically, youth when he was appointed assistant pastor to St. Florian’s Parish in Krakow in August 1949. By 1956 he would be appointed Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin and Auxiliary Bishop on July 4, 1958, and consecrated in Wavel Cathedral on September 28, 1958. He was made Archbishop of Krakow on March 8, 1964 and elevated to Cardinal on June 28, 1965 by future friend and admirer Blessed Pope Paul VI. God was forming him intellectually with his continuing studies, physically with his love of sports, emotionally with suffering and loss, and spiritually with a deeper consecration, prayer life, and the Cross. Through his formation of suffering in Poland under the Nazi’s during World War II and the Communists during the Cold War of the 1950’s-70’s, God was preparing him to be the most powerful man on earth, not the President of the U.S.A., but the Vicar of Christ on earth – the Supreme Pontiff. He learned to walk in the footsteps of Christ as Pope because he walked in them as a youth, priest, and bishop, being a suffering servant with a virginal heart. On October 22, 1978 God called this humble, Polish man, priest and bishop to the loneliest ministry – the pope.
He was elected the 263rd successor to St. Peter and he picked up where Blessed Paul VI and Pope John Paul I left off. He would spend his pontificate reminding the world who a human person truly is, reminding the world who Jesus Christ truly is, writing prolifically, and traveling the world stage. He would make 104 trips outside Italy visiting 129 different countries and territories and traveling over 750,000 miles. He met with 737 heads of state, had 245 meetings with Prime Ministers and met 5 different U.S. Presidents. He would canonize 483 Catholics, Beatify 1342, and appoint 231 Cardinals to the College of Cardinals. He also had to deal with his own deep personal suffering from the attempted assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, including the several falls he took which caused him much pain and difficulty in walking, brought on by Parkinson’s Disease. His worst suffering probably came from the plight and suffering of his fellow world citizens in Poland, the Middle East and other parts of the world. He also had to suffer through mismanagement of the Roman Curia, local bishops, and the dreaded sex-scandals. Amidst this and far more suffering the Church and world was undergoing, he still changed the face of the papacy and was the greatest Christian witness of the 20th century. How did he do it? His personal relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the formative suffering he had under Nazism and Communism. Yes I did say it, if we allow God to heal, console, comfort, teach, guide, and strengthen us, suffering will form you to be a deeply compassionate and loving person. Anger, bitterness, resentment, hatred and the demand for earthly justice must be surrendered to God and the wounds of life, which are inevitable, be allowed to heal by God’s grace and love. This takes prayer, which creates an inner strength, and peace rooted in God the Father’s infinite and unconditional love for us. This virginal reception in prayer before Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist is which forms us, gives us our priestly identity, fuels our priestly prayer life, and feeds our priestly mission always rooted in the power of God and our poverty before Him.
This takes God’s abundant grace flowing into and from our woundedness. It was living with and seeing his own brokenness and woundedness and those of others that Pope John Paul II observed the human condition. Through it, he saw the dignity of the human person and our human sexuality. Thank God he received the Theology of the Body and delivered it to the world and the world can be healed by it, but only for those who choose to be open, receive, learn and will to respond to God’s abundant healing graces. He said:
“we must learn not to be afraid, we must rediscover a spirit of hope and a spirit of trust…hope and trust are the premise of responsible activity and nurtured in conscience.”
He also said on October 7, 1995 in Central Park in New York City: “You young people will live most of your lives in the next millennium. You must help the Holy Spirit to shape its social, moral and spiritual character. The pope asks you to do this. He knows that you will do this, and for this he loves you. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the pope his Christmas present in October in New York, in Central Park. Do not be afraid! The power of the Holy Spirit is with you!” If only we could all remember his words!
Pope St. John Paul II, pray for us! Amen.
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Father Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. He most recently served as Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in White Plains, NY. He joins the staff of the Theology of the Body Institute on a three-year leave from the Archdiocese of New York, to become the Institute’s first full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development.