May 15, 2020

Editorial

St. Pope John Paul II born 100 years ago

Next Monday, May 18, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. Pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church had some exceptional popes during the 20th century, perhaps more than in any other century, but JPII, as he came to be known, is considered by many as the greatest. His pontificate carried over into the 21st century; he died just 15 years ago and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014.

Born Karol Josef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, he led a remarkable life before his election as pope in 1978. An athletic boy who played football (what we know as soccer), he became an actor and a playwright in his late teens. But then came World War II, and he had to go to work in a limestone quarry for the German occupation forces.

He studied for the priesthood in a clandestine underground seminary and was ordained in 1946. He was known as a kind priest, especially to the young with whom he would camp, but also as an intellectual. Named a bishop, he attended the Second Vatican Council where he first caught the attention of the rest of the Church’s hierarchy.

It was historic, to say the least, when he was elected pope because he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, the first since Adrian VI in 1522-23 and the first ever from Eastern Europe. Then his pontificate extended for more than 26 years, longer than any pope except Blessed Pius IX.

Pope John Paul II quickly became the most-traveled pope in history, journeying to 129 countries. More people saw him in person than saw all of his predecessors combined.

He also canonized and beatified many more people than all of his predecessors combined.

Perhaps historians will remember him particularly for his role in the dramatic events leading to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, including his home country. His visits to Poland and his support of the Solidarity labor movement there strengthened resistance to communism. This led to nonviolent liberation movements and the collapse of communist regimes, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

His literary output—including 13 encyclicals—set another record. He was by far the most prolific writer as a pope. The encyclicals showed his concern for the protection of all human life, for social justice (three social encyclicals), for ecumenism and interreligious relations, his love for the Blessed Virgin and the relationship of faith and reason. He also wrote several books and others were produced with his cooperation.

He worked tirelessly to promote better relations with the Jews and with other Christian, as well as non-Christian, religions. He apologized frequently for errors committed by Church leaders in the past against Jews, Muslims and others.

There can be little doubt that he was admired by more people in the world than any other religious or political leader. Twice he called leaders of all religions together to pray for peace, the only religious leader who could have done so.

Throughout his pontificate, he was extremely popular with youth. This was understandable when he was a strong athletic man, but his attraction to young people continued into his old age and despite his infirmities. Our young people chanted “John Paul II, we love you!” during his visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, and so many others through the years affectionately chanted that refrain.

He tried to put the ideas of collegiality with the bishops into practice by presiding over 15 synods of bishops, usually issuing apostolic exhortations following the gatherings. When the idea of a new catechism was suggested at a synod, he approved the project and then authorized the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. He oversaw the revision of the Code of Canon Law and promulgated the new code in 1983.

He was sensitive to women’s issues while continuing to insist that the Church is unable to ordain women. His continued support for priestly celibacy also put him at odds with some in the Church.

As he aged, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the effects of an assassination attempt, a broken hip and an appendectomy. Through that, he taught us the value of suffering. He referred to his illnesses as “the mission Jesus entrusted to me.”

As we observe the centennial of his birth, we thank God for giving us this great man to lead his Church during our lifetime.

—John F. Fink

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