The pontificate of John Paul II was a gift from God to the faithful entering the third millennium.
The unique significance of a recent Vatican announcement has settled on the minds and hearts of Christ’s faithful. The joyful news of the beatification of Pope John Paul II on the first of May contains layers of meaning for the Church and the world. This beatification of a pope so well-known and loved by the world drawn the attention of millions and provided the Church with an opportunity to focus the global gaze not on John Paul II, but on his greatest love, Jesus Christ. The beatification Mass is a celebration for the world, and a reminder to all that it was Jesus who inspired the Holy Father’s life of universal ministry. People of every continent and creed appreciated John Paul II as a man of God who loved humanity. In his ever-present smile they saw, whether they knew it or not, the face of Jesus.
This is also an opportunity to remember the importance of the saints and the process of canonization in the life of the Church. The saints as well as those declared “blessed” are our heroes in the faith, our intercessors before the throne of God, and the exemplars of what it means to live in Christ. We honor them by seeking their intercession and putting into practice, in our own day, the virtues that made them honorable and brought them to eternal glory. We remember them in the Mass on their feast days, for in the Eucharist we are most fully united with one another and, beyond the boundaries of time and space in the mystery of the Eucharist, with the Church triumphant in heaven. We sing with the saints and angels the Sanctus—Holy, Holy, Holy—which is eternally resounding through the heavenly halls. We ask them to pray with us and for us to God in our needs. We display their images as tangible reminders of what God can do through the prayer and work of holy men and women.
Saints become recognized by the Church as worthy of devotion only after a long and careful process. When a person’s cause for canonization is brought to the attention of the Church, his or her life is investigated for evidence of heroic virtue—virtue and sacrificial love beyond ordinary goodness—and the person is declared “Venerable” and a “Servant of God.” Subsequently, two miracles must be proven to have taken place because of the person’s intercession subsequent to his or her death. A painstaking investigation into the alleged miracle, involving doctors and experts in the appropriate fields as well as theologians, is undertaken to ensure that there is no natural explanation and, to the extent it is humanly possible under God’s guidance, to determine that a miracle has taken place. After the first miracle, the person is declared “blessed,” and, after the second, “saint.”
John Paul’s beatification is a call to remember his teaching and pastoral initiatives, which have impacted every aspect of the Church’s life. John Paul II ascended to the papal throne in the midst of a confused and divided Church and led her over the course of 27 years in a journey of re-discovery of the eternal truths that define her. In 1978, the “spirit of Vatican II” was being manipulated to justify everything from clown Masses to the ordination of women. A hastily implemented reform of the liturgy seemed to create a false separation between the “new Mass” and the previous tradition, and left some Catholics ecstatic over the creative possibilities and others in despair over the loss of the sacred liturgy of their ancestors. The prematurely leaked majority report of a Vatican commission, which recommended to Pope Paul VI a change in the traditional teaching against contraception—a recommendation he did not accept when he published Humanae Vitae in 1968—opened the door of unprecedented dissent. The rugged individualism and anti-establishment climate of the 1960s and 70s infected the Church, and her people began to lose sight of who they were. As early as 1969, Paul VI realized the decline in understanding and devotion to the Eucharist, and thus he wrote the encyclical Mysterium Fidei in an attempt to re-affirm the traditional beliefs. Mass attendance and fidelity to Church precepts began to slip as well. Catholics were left wondering what would come next, and what the Church was really all about.
Into this confounding scenario stepped Karol Wojtyla, a brilliant philosopher and scholar who attended the Council; a man who had seen firsthand during the Nazi occupation and the Second World War both the horrific evil of which humanity is capable as well as the goodness inherent in men and women such as his fellow students, actors and professors. One cannot imagine a candidate better suited for such a daunting task as he would embrace—the task of bringing the Church back to her foundations. John Paul needed to do what so many in the decades before him failed to do: to embrace Vatican II’s true aggiornamento (updating) by placing it within the context of the Council’s other call for ressourcement (return to the sources). It was to the sources of our faith, and to the Source of truth, love and holiness themselves, that he would take us—to Jesus, whose identity and ministry are our reality.
John Paul II would write fourteen encyclicals touching on the major aspects of doctrine, including Redemptoris Mater, “The Mother of the Redeemer” (March 25, 1987), on the importance of Mary in the Christian life; Centesimus Annus, “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum” (May 1, 1991), on the Church’s authentic social teaching; Veritatis Splendor, “The Splendor of Truth” (August 6, 1993), on the foundations of moral theology, the moral absolutes, and the union of truth, goodness, and freedom; Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life” (March 25, 1995), on building a “culture of life”; Ut Unum Sint, “On Commitment to Ecumenism” (May 25, 1995), on the essential role of ecumenism in the Church’s life and work;Fides et Ratio, “Faith and Reason” (September 14, 1998), on the harmony between theology and philosophy, divine revelation and science; andEcclesia De Eucharistia, “On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church” (April 17, 2003), on the centrality of Eucharistic celebration and devotion in the life of the Church. The foundational components of our faith were explored and reaffirmed in their fullness by this holy pope.
John Paul II was a firm believer in the essential role of the family in the Church and society. He once stated: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Because of this clear conviction, he devoted much time and energy to teaching about the identity of man and woman and the meaning of marriage in God’s design, as well as the family’s responsibility to build up a “domestic Church.” Beginning in the early months of his pontificate, he gave a series of weekly audiences that have since been compiled into a revolutionary book, Theology of the Body, a study of the capacity of man and woman for relationship and the fundamental human vocation to love as God loves. As a beautiful gift for families, he left us Familiaris Consortio, an apostolic letter on family life. He began the now-famous World Youth Days, when young people gather in the millions to celebrate their Catholic heritage and love for Jesus.
The now-beatified pope was also a model priest. On the altars of the world, John Paul II celebrated the Eucharist and gave Jesus to the thirsting souls of millions of Catholics as he journeyed to 129 countries—the most traveled pope in history. He showed priests and seminarians how to love people, especially young people, how to preach the truth in love, and how to revere Christ in the Eucharist and in the lowly of society. He taught us how to be priests and what the priesthood means for the Church and the world in Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I will give you Shepherds,” March 25, 1992) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (“On the Ordination to the Priesthood,” May 22, 1994). The crowds of young men and women at the World Youth Days, together with the throngs of young seminarians who followed his priestly leadership, became a new generation of vibrant orthodox and loving Catholics—pastors and people to build up the Church in the third millennium.
For the first time since 1917, a new Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983 under the direction of John Paul II. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, rightly described as the book that single-handedly jump-started the new evangelization and the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent, was released under the auspices of John Paul II in 1997. He wanted to be very clear about what the Church has always taught on matters of faith and morals, especially the role of Mary, the sanctity of human life, marriage, sexuality and the family, priesthood and religious life, the Eucharist and the sacraments. As the supreme catechist, he gave us the reasonable, scriptural and traditional foundations for our faith. We now know what we believe and we know why—all because of John Paul II.
John Paul II further guarded against a watering-down of the faith. In his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), he set down principles and guidelines for Catholic universities. It is the proper function of Catholic scholars, he reminded us, to pursue the truth in the heart of the Church. He upheld the true dignity of women while affirming the impossibility of women’s ordination. He reminded the laity and the ordained ministers of their vital and distinct roles, for all are called to holiness and a sharing in the mission of Christ. He longed for the Church to “breathe with both lungs” (East and West) and he worked tirelessly for unity among Christians. In a 1998 ad limina address to U.S. bishops, he gave us an authentic instruction on active participation in the liturgy.
The pope of smiles and love stood as a voice for the voiceless unborn, sick and elderly. He condemned what he dubbed the “culture of death” and its most heinous forms: abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research. He demanded that people of faith stand strong to construct together a culture of life—a culture that reveres the sacredness of every human person from conception to natural death.
Twenty years into his pontificate came the climax of John Paul II’s pastoral plan. Anticipated by three years of preparation, each year devoted to one of the persons of the Trinity, the Jubilee Year 2000 opened the way into the third Christian millennium. John Paul II marked the occasion with the letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (“On the Coming of the Third Millennium”). By this point, he had captivated the world with his love for Jesus and now he was inviting us all to join him on a pilgrimage into the future with Jesus as our companion and exemplar. This jubilee year was celebrated in every corner of Christendom with rich solemnity. The bi-millennial anniversary of the birth of Jesus was also a rebirth of faith in the hearts of the young generation.
John Paul II’s influence extended far beyond the Church and impacted the world scene. Together with Ronald Reagan, he worked to bring an end to Soviet Communism. Peace and justice for all people in the world was a passionate goal of the man who had seen for himself the disastrous effects of violent regimes.
It can be reasonably argued that Pope John Paul II is the pope who fulfills the famous prophetic vision of St. John Bosco. In a vision, the Lord showed St. John Bosco the danger threatening the Church. He saw the Church, represented as the Ship of Peter, surrounded by a loyal armada of smaller ships, battling an enemy naval fleet which threatened to destroy it. The Holy Father fell mortally wounded and the enemy closed in. Suddenly two columns rose up from the ocean, one holding a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament and the other topped by a statue of Mary Immaculate. The sight of the columns and the election of a new pope caused the enemy to mount a last attack to prevent him from anchoring the Church between the two pillars. The attack on the Church was a failure, the winds subsided and the sea again grew calm. The pope and his faithful defenders found safety anchored between the two pillars. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope amid threats from the “culture of death” and the confusion of many changes in the external elements of the Church. After nearly three decades of fighting threats from within and without, through writing, preaching and ecumenical dialogue, John Paul II concluded his papacy with the Year of the Rosary and the Year of the Eucharist (2002 and 2004, respectively). Having fought bravely and risen to strength after being wounded by a would-be assassin, he indeed anchored the faithful between Mary and the Eucharist, as he had done in so many ways throughout his entire priesthood. The Church could now sail calmly into the third millennium, confident of who she is and anchored in Jesus and Mary.
In 2000, John Paul II gave the Church his most beautiful gift: the devotion to Divine Mercy. Known to the people of Poland for half a century, the visions and instructions of Jesus to Sr. Faustina Kowalska gained universal popularity under the guidance of the Holy Father. Finally, at the Mass of her canonization on April 30, 2000, the Pope declared the Second Sunday of Easter to be also “Divine Mercy Sunday.” The celebration of that day has been taken up by Catholics everywhere with great devotion. Amid personal trials and public scandals, John Paul II reminds us to trust in Jesus, whose mercy knows no bounds and who sacrificed his life for our salvation and that of the whole world. It was on this feast, which he instituted, that John Paul II passed from this life in 2005—after First Vespers on Saturday evening. He was carried into the arms of his merciful savior having lived a splendid life of priestly love, teaching, sanctifying and shepherding the Church across the threshold of a new millennium.
The legacy of John Paul II is the richest fruit of the Second Vatican Council. He brought the unchanging faith of the apostolic Church into dialogue with the modern world. He showed Catholics how to re-discover our identity and called the world back to a fuller understanding of what it means to be human in the glorious plan of God. Pope Benedict XVI’s enlightening teaching on the interpretation of Vatican II (Address to the Roman Curia, Christmas 2005) beckons us to see the Council through a “hermeneutic of continuity” (continuity with Church teaching before it) rather than one of “discontinuity and rupture.” Such an interpretation of continuity looks to the texts of Vatican II for the teachings the Council intended to hand on, rather than to its “spirit,” which the Holy Father points out can be taken to justify a variety of interpretations or ideas. Pope John Paul II indeed looked to the Council documents and grounded his own teachings in them. He gives us a clear example of how to receive the Council’s wisdom and pass it on authentically, in harmony with the Church’s entire Tradition.
It would be naïve to say that, despite his world-wide and cross-creedal popularity, John Paul II was universally accepted. His assassination attempt alone reveals that his message sometimes met with hatred. Beyond the painfully obvious, in the years of his pontificate many scholars and Church leaders, as well as lay people, called into question the ancient doctrines of Catholicism and mocked the joyful orthodoxy of the contemporary Magisterium. In books and lectures and homilies, John Paul II suffered brutal attacks on his confident and loving presentation of the teaching of Christ. Despite the opposition, he remained strong and vibrant. As a result, we can turn to his legacy and know who we are as Catholics and how to authentically share Jesus with others, in spite of differences and divisions.
During this Easter season, the world turns its attention once again to John Paul II, a man of deep intellectual ability and influence, a priest of tremendous love, and a pope of unparalleled significance in our Catholic history. Let us rejoice together in this blessed man and in the incredible riches of God’s mercy that flowed through him to so many souls. The Church looks to his work in awe and gratitude, praising God that we have had such a pope to bring us from confusion to a clear and reasonable understanding of who we are and what we must do as followers of Jesus Christ. Christianity will always be a challenging message to embrace and humanity will always struggle to understand and follow Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, with John Paul II’s legacy of truth and love before us, we journey forward as people of faith, drawing ever closer to Christ who loves us and inviting the world to join us on the journey into the springtime.