October 22, 2021

Christ the Cornerstone

Pope St. John Paul II was a witness to love

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“The Word of God became flesh and came to dwell in the world. He revealed to us that God is love, and he gave us the new commandment of love.” (Pope St. John Paul II)

Forty-three years ago today, on Oct. 22, 1978, Karol Józef Wojtyła was inaugurated as Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century. In his 27 years as the successor of St. Peter, “the Polish pope” visited 129 countries, wrote 14 papal encyclicals and scores of other official documents, implemented the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and was responsible for many global initiatives such as World Youth Day, the Great Jubilee of 2000 and the development and publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Many people refer to him as “St. John Paul the Great,” which is not an official Church designation, but which is a popular recognition of the enormity of his accomplishments and the effect that his spiritual leadership had—especially on young people. The Polish pope, who experienced firsthand both the horrors of Nazi Germany and the oppression of the Soviet Union, is credited with playing a major role in the dissolution of Communism in his native Poland and, ultimately, throughout Europe.

Perhaps John Paul’s greatest accomplishment was his consistent witness to the love of God revealed most powerfully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many examples could be given, but the pope’s response to his attempted assassination by a Turkish gunman on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981 is especially remarkable. Crediting his survival to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul II said:

“Could I forget that the event in St. Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over 60 years at Fátima, Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.”

In December 1983, he visited his would-be assassin in prison. John Paul II and Mehmet Al Ağca spoke privately for about 20 minutes. Afterward, the pope said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”

Pardoning his enemy might be expected of a spiritual leader like John Paul II, but referring to him as “a brother” who has “my complete trust” is extraordinary no matter how you look at it. It is a Christ-like demonstration of love and mercy, and it gives witness to the unity and solidarity of all humanity in spite of our differences and the sins we commit against each other.

One of St. John Paul’s significant accomplishments was in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Throughout his long papacy, the Holy Father reached out to other Christian denominations, to members of the Jewish community, to Muslims and to the leaders of other world religions. He firmly believed that we are all God’s children and that what unites us is much more important than what divides us.

Pope John Paul’s witness to love was expressed powerfully in his long illness and death. When he was first elected pope, he was youthful, athletic and energetic, but more than 25 years in office, two assassination attempts, and a number of cancer scares all took a toll on the pope’s physical health. In 2003, two years before his death, the Vatican confirmed that the Holy Father suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease. In spite of the debilitating effects of this disease, the pope continued his ministry, including his travels, giving witness to the role that the elderly and infirm can play in the Church and in society.

Even after his death on April 2, 2005, Pope St. John Paul II continued his witness to God’s love and mercy. His funeral liturgy six days later set a world record for attendance. Four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions attended. In death, as in life, John Paul the Great was acknowledged to be a larger-than-life witness to Christ.

An estimated 4 million mourners—many carrying banners and shouting “Santo subito!” (sainthood now!)—gathered in and around Vatican City. Their wishes were granted just nine years later when on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014, Pope Francis celebrated the canonization Mass for his predecessor.

May the intercession of this great saint bring unity, peace and mercy to our Church and world. †

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