Life is worth celebrating, and when it’s lived well, it’s
worth remembering. John Paul II lived an extraordinary life, and
the footprints he left behind are so remarkable, that it’s
only right to remember him. Whatever words we use to
describe his personality and virtues, his dramatic life, and his
long and eventful papacy, cannot but fail to do justice
to the spirit, the essence of this man who taught
us that faith can change history, and who showed us
that being a Christian in today’s world is not only
possible, but actually worth all the difficulties it entails. Irrespective
of these limitations, on the second anniversary of his death
it is only right to stop for a little while
and ponder the example of ‘John Paul the Great’.
is a pope, if not first a Christian; and what
is a Christian, if not a faithful follower of Jesus
Christ? John Paul encountered Christ at the dawn of his
life, and his ongoing communion with Jesus set the backdrop
for his whole existence. In showing us how Christ was
in the center of his heart, John Paul offered Christians
everywhere an unforgettable example of how to live the Gospel,
in good times and bad.
As a young man, he
saw his homeland torn between two aggressors, The Nazis rounded
up and executed his professors and his Jewish friends. In
this darkness, he followed Christ… Next, the Soviets arrived, clamped
down on the Church, bullied his people and pounded them
with morally corrosive propaganda. He turned to Christ and learned
how to bring the Gospel to shine on individual human
rights and human sexuality. He stimulated the faith of the
believers he served, bringing Christ to them in the countryside
and in the city, in kayaks and in the streets.
Like Christ defending his disciples, as Bishop he stood with
his flock before Communist officials, declaring the right of believers
to construct a house of prayer in a city specifically
designed to exclude God and the Church.
The moment eventually
came when he was asked to fill the shoes of
the Fisherman, and accepting the call, he obediently followed his
Master onto the world stage. When the curtains of his
papacy opened, he openly proclaimed the person who was his
inspiration in the encyclical ‘Redemptor Hominis’, ‘The Redeemer of Man’.
Challenging humanity to look to Christ to find the meaning
of human existence, John Paul cried out, “The man who
wishes to understand himself thoroughly […] must with his unrest,
uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life
and death, draw near to Christ.” With the power flowing
from this message, he instilled hope in throngs of Catholics
growing up at the end of an all too bleak
20th century. Around the globe, thousands gathered to hear him
speak about Christ and the hope He brought to human
existence. Regardless of the size of these crowds, the experience
was always personal. You could be in the nosebleed section
of stadium, and you felt like the Pope was talking
directly to you. Conversion and commitment followed in the wake
of these encounters. Not surprisingly, many of the priests ordained
in the last several years have attributed their decision to
radically follow Christ to the example of this Pontiff.
Paul II will also be remembered for bringing new life
to Christ’s words, ‘Let the children come to me, for
the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ through
the World Youth Days he initiated. These intense encounters of
prayer and fellowship challenged young people to discover the meaning
of their lives in Christ. John Paul’s words captured the
hearts of today’s youth, and they followed him faithfully from
Rome to Manila, from Toronto to Cologne. They journeyed to
catch just a glimpse of him or to hear him
speak of the promise of eternal happiness with Christ. Restlessness
seized them as they eagerly awaited his arrival, and the
sight of his tiny white pope-mobile electrified the crowds like
a bolt of lightening and elicited thunderous cheers. All applause
and smiling faces, laughter and inexplicable joy, the young people
gently surrendered the noise to listen to the gentle Pontiff
communicate the truth in love, in their now hushed and
silent attention. They came to him in droves, thirsty and
hungry for the Word of God, and he, like a
faithful shepherd, dried their tears and fed them on the
bread of truth.
In Toronto in 2002, his final World
Youth Day, all of nature seemed to participate in the
joy and festivities. Young people raced ahead to the front
sections as soon as the gates opened. They waited for
his arrival with immense longing. Everyone felt that this was
a special moment, that this would probably be his last
World Youth Day. Something special was taking place, and you
were glad just to be there. On Sunday morning, the
final day of the celebration, the crowds were soaked to
the bone by the early morning showers. Refusing to become
disheartened, they continued to dance, to cheer, to laugh and
enjoy the moment. When John Paul arrived, the show began.
Shouts of joy and recognition rang out. The wind began
to blow with such an intensity that the roof over
the main stage where Mass was going to be celebrated
shook and trembled so violently that a piece of it
actually tore off. Large pieces of equipment went sent flying.
It was as if God was blow-drying the crowds. The
think dark clouds pealed back and revealed a deep, blue
sky at the precise moment that the readings for Mass
began. The finale came as the Pope approached the microphone.
The sun beamed out and poured its golden rays on
the crowds, drying every article of clothing and evaporating every
puddle on that wide field. His words reflected the beauty
of the moment: with pauses just long enough for the
onlookers to drink in the fact that he was sharing
their experience, that he was one with them in recognizing
the extraordinary features of this event, John Paul said, “Rain…wind…sun.”
Moments later, in his homily, the Pope encouraged the young
people to look for Christ, to seek to encounter Him.
‘He is eternally young,’ the Pope proclaimed. There could have
been no more powerful message than hearing these words from
an old man at the end of his life, but
with the eternal youth of Christ beaming through his tired
and pain ridden body.
And thus began the dialogue. The
young people began chanting the well known “John Paul II,
we love you!” No one wanted to see him go.
No one wanted the encounter to end. ‘The pope is
old’ he said. They immediately responded in unison ‘The pope
is young! The pope is young!’ They were right. Their
words spoke a truth reflected in John Paul’s very words
concerning Christ. If Christ is eternally young, and he lives
in his followers, then his followers share in what is
truly the fountain of youth. They become young with the
young Christ. The young people cut to the quick and
their words serve as a fitting eulogy. John Paul II
is not old, a memory of yesterday. For those who
believe, he is not gone. He continues lives today, immersed
in a new and eternal life with Christ.
the day to remember that throughout all the events, behind
all the glitz and buzz of the media, at the
back of all of those encounters with world leaders and
the massive crowds of the faithful, in all of his
travels to and fro, John Paul was, above all, a
faithful follower of Jesus Christ. This was the guiding thread
of his life, his priesthood, his episcopate, and his papacy.
Today, two years after his death, this is his legacy
and his challenge: to follow like he did in the
footsteps of the Master, and gain eternal life in the
world to come.
Br Michael Maciborski, of the Legionaries of
Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.