St. John Paul II (the Great), Pope
1920 – 2005
October 22 – Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of World Youth Day
Fully prepared, possessing every skill, a pope for the ages makes maximum impact
Thirty-three years after the dark cloud of communism had settled over Eastern Europe, on a crisp autumn night, heavy bells across Poland began to sway and toll in their high towers. Their clangs peeled down the valleys, thundered through the town squares, and reverberated off every city street. Men and women spilled like water into the streets. Songs. Candles. Prayers. Flowers. Tears. Flags. Embraces. Champagne. Could it be true? A son of Poland had been elected Pope! The impossible had become possible! In the town of Wadowice, Fr. Edward Zacher was paralyzed by emotion. He could not summon a single word for the faithful who crammed the church in thanksgiving. Late that night, he slowly opened the sacramental register of the parish. He leafed through the yellowed pages back to May 1920. Carolus Joseph Wojtyła. Father Zacher had taught him catechism as a boy. The register duly noted, in Latin, Karol’s dates of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Priestly and Episcopal Ordination, and consecration as Cardinal. In a margin at the bottom of the page, the old priest’s hand trembled as he made a new entry: “Die 16 X 1978 in Summum Pontificem electus et sibi nomen Ioannem Paulum II imposuit.”
Pope Saint John Paul II was a titan. He was as prepared as any man before him to be pope. He was all things—a highly educated European intellectual, a philosophy professor with two Doctorates, a mystic of intense spirituality, a working bishop of a large and dynamic Archdiocese behind the iron curtain, a Cardinal whose counsel was valued by the Pope, an active contributor at the Second Vatican Council, a polyglot, and a world traveler. Adding to this embarrassment of riches, he was an athlete and outdoorsman, had palpable charisma, an open personality, a manly presence, vast circles of lay friends, a resonant voice, and he was just 58 years old when elected. Never had a conclave of Cardinals made a bolder, wiser choice. That John Paul II was the first Slavic pope, and the first non-Italian in centuries, was also interesting and became more significant as his papacy unfolded. The times and the man were a match. He was simply the perfect man for the hour and his long papacy disappointed in almost nothing.
The catalogue of accomplishments of John Paul II, both before and after his papal election, is long. He was a tornado of activity and displayed a physical stamina which might have buried a man half his age. He wrote profoundly on every subject: Saint Mary, the Trinity, the Church’ social teachings, suffering, Christ, work, moral theology, philosophy, and on and on. Every subject found ample space to grow in his capacious mind. His personal narrative was also compelling. He had personally experienced the effects of the twentieth century’s twin horrors, Nazism and Communism, both efforts to create a perfect society without regard for God or man’s dignity. He knew what it was to be personally degraded, to come close to death, to go into hiding. He had seen his entire nation brought to its knees in humiliation. He understood, at the deepest level, what the Church meant to the world.
The papacy of our Saint built on the international Petrine ministry first initiated, in small steps, by Pope Saint Paul VI. John Paul II made this universal ministry an enduring part of every pope’s profile. He said Mass on the altar of the world, where humanity itself was his congregation. He had the piety of a humble Mexican peasant and the sophistication of an erudite German professor. No one, and no type, was a stranger to him. An assassin’s bullet almost killed him on May 13, 1981, but he survived, barely. The physical effects of his injuries, and other illnesses, laid bare his sufferings for all to see. On the night of April 2, 2005, this giant, this father to the world, this Moses to the Slavs, died as tens of thousands gathered in prayerful vigil outside his window in Saint Peter’s Square. His funeral Mass was timeless and supernatural in a manner felt by all, but difficult to capture in words. He was canonized in 2014 and is buried in a side nave of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Saint Pope John Paul II, you laid your superabundant gifts on God’s altar as a teen, and God used them to the fullest extent until your death. Help all Christians to put their talents at God’s service to help lead others to Christ and to His Church.
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