The Lasting Contribution of The Servant of God Pope John Paul II
Monsignor Charles M. Mangan
During the last day of March and the first two days of April 2005, much of the world was riveted on the third floor of the Vatican Apostolic Palace--the home for the last twenty-six years of Pope John Paul II. The once physically strong Pontiff finally succumbed to a panoply of medical ailments.
As was to be expected, the days following his death were the backdrop for much analysis, both scholarly and popular. What is the legacy of the Holy Father? What are the perduring contributions of Karol Wojtyła to our troubled era? Undoubtedly, these pressing questions will be asked in the years and decades--even centuries--to come.
In cataloguing the remarkable achievements of Pope John Paul II, one faces a stiff task. There are so many things that the simple priest and bishop from Krakow did that it is difficult to know where to begin.
John Patrick Cardinal Foley, then President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Vatican City, was a long-time collaborator of Pope John Paul II and an astute observer of his noteworthy Pontificate, often being called by the media to give his perspective on various papal initiatives.
Almost two months after the death of the Successor of St. Peter, then Archbishop Foley, who was appointed to his position by Pope John Paul II in 1984, traveled to Orlando, Florida, where he attended the meeting of the Catholic Press Association. In a homily he gave during the gathering, the prelate avoided the understandable temptation to provide a lengthy list of the incredible accomplishments of his dear friend--an exercise that surely does have merit. Instead, Archbishop Foley was content to summarize the Holy Father's legacy as follows.
"Pope John Paul II taught us that there is much more to the papacy than speaking, writing, greeting people and traveling--although he certainly did enough of all of that.
"Pope John Paul II taught us how to live, how to suffer and how to die."
Admitting that the "numbers" of this Pontificate--countries visited, encyclicals penned, men, women, boys and girls beatified and canonized, audiences held, babies embraced, bishops appointed, civil authorities encouraged--are helpful and do tell part of the notable story very well, this author, taking a cue from Cardinal Foley, rather will consider what lessons we learn from Pope John Paul II as he lived, suffered and died.
As He Lived
"It was not you who chose Me, but I Who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain" (John 15:16). Jesus Christ the Great High Priest had designs on Karol Wojtyła from an early age. The merciful Lord was preparing the sensitive lad who lost his mother at a tender age to become a priest after His own Heart.
God has been glorified and souls saved because the Polish youth said his personal fiat--"May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). In fact, we can assert without hesitation or exaggeration that the world has been significantly altered for the better because the young man destined to be the Bishop of Rome surrendered his will to the Almighty. Karol Wojtyła bore fruit. So it is whenever anyone submits to God's sagacious and inscrutable plan.
"Behold, your Mother" (John 19:27). The sincere veneration of the Holy Father directed to the Immaculate Ever-Virgin Mother of God was legendary. His papal motto, Totus Tuus ("Totally Yours"), demonstrated not only an intellectual assent to the Church's wise doctrines concerning Our Blessed Lady but also a real--and lasting--recognition of her rightful place in the spiritual life.
Pope John Paul II could say with St. Bernard of Clarvaux (1090-1153): De Maria numquam satis--"Concerning Mary, never enough." Correctly understood, this assertion corresponds to the traditional theology and praxis of the Church. The Pontiff spent himself in imitating Our Blessed Mother and making her more loved in the hearts of the Faithful. He generously consecrated himself Ad Iesum Per Mariam ("To Jesus Through Mary") in the spirit of St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) and lived that consecration joyfully, courageously and unreservedly.
"For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, My Name is great among the nations" (Malachi 1:11). The Holy Father displayed an urgency in his words and deeds that this Old Testament verse should be increasingly realized. Of course, as it stands, this sentence is true--the Lord's Name is blessed throughout the universe. But, sadly, we confess that not everyone professes the Holy Name of God with faith, conviction and love.
The multiple excursions made by the "Pilgrim Pope" only underscored the fervent desire of Pope John Paul II that the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ be preached to--and accepted in--the four corners of the globe. His heroic efforts were not in vain but redounded to the honor of the Creator Who inspired the Holy Father to expend so much energy in going to find the Lord's needy sons and daughters.
"How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the Name of the Lord" (Psalm 116:12-13). The virtue of gratitude was readily observable in the life of Pope John Paul II. He often expressed his genuine thanks to the Lord for all the varied and splendid gifts he had received--his parents, family, friends, faith and even the indescribably challenging Petrine ministry which had been entrusted to him. But since gratitude demands a kind of recompense from the recipient to the bestower, the Holy Father sought to "pay back" the Divine Giver with the best possible return: his own conversion to Christ.
The Successor of St. Peter celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily. He knew that the Mass is the thanksgiving offered to God par excellence. His love for the Most Holy Eucharist was manifested in the countless hours he spent before the Most Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance. Pope John Paul II lived an "Eucharistic life" through his union with Jesus and his willingness to be broken and shared for the brothers and sisters of Christ.
"Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). The Holy Father tirelessly repeated the inspiring verity that the Creator has fashioned the human person into His own likeness. Man is the imago Dei--"the image of God." Hence, it is never licit to attack innocent human life. Rather, such an audacious assault is a heinous affront to the Maker and must never be tolerated.
The human race continues to profit from the amazing fortitude of Pope John Paul II. Instead of capitulating to the diabolical forces of our era, the Holy Father, without any tinge of human respect, enunciated the singular beauty and dignity of human life, exhorting all persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity or creed, to stand up for human life and defend it at every turn. Just when we needed this message, it was announced to us with precision and kindness by none other than the Vicar of Christ. Had the Holy Father "only" done this for us, it would have been enough.
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). The colorful pilgrimages of the Holy Father will always be remembered. He took literally the imperative--not suggestion--of the Lord Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations. Pope John Paul II traversed the world in search of the lost sheep and trumpeted the Good News to Christians and non-Christians alike.
But the Pontiff also obeyed this command of Christ when he remained in Vatican City. He welcomed countless persons to his audiences, offering them hope and comfort along the arduous path that leads to Heaven. And he produced one text after another that conveyed the eternal mysteries. Whether in Rome or elsewhere, Pope John Paul II carried out his teaching office with fidelity.
As He Suffered
"O God, You are my God--for You I long" (Psalm 63:2). One of the most quotable lines from the Holy Father's massive teachings as found in his homilies, discourses and writings is that "suffering is salvific." His February 11, 1984 Apostolic Letter entitled Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) emphasized that we who carry our own crosses with Christ closely participate in His saving action. We seek the Holy Face of the Lord in our prayer and in our suffering and are content to be used by Him for the welfare of the sons and daughters of God.
As is well known, the Pontiff suffered intensely from the mysterious assassination attempt that occurred on May 13, 1981, which was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the appearance of the Mother of Jesus to the three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Furthermore, he suffered from other illnesses that plagued him during his nearly twenty-seven year Pontificate. Yet, he cheerfully carried his heavy cross, convinced that the Master Who loved him and suffered on Calvary for him would grant the necessary strength to him to complete his taxing assignment. The Holy Father insisted that "Christ did not come down from the cross"--evidently a reference to his intention to fulfill his God-given mission until the very end and not resign from the Papacy.
"Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of Heart" (Matthew 11:29). The Holy Father's suffering was not limited to the physical realm. He experienced anguish deep in his soul. The haughty rejection of Jesus by millions of persons haunted him, as did the blatant refusal by some Catholics to heed the Vicar of Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. That peace has proven so elusive in diverse parts of the world also intensified the agony of Pope John Paul II.
As he did with his bodily suffering, the Holy Father offered this moral anguish to the Redeemer. He sought to persevere in his agony with the unfailing help of the Lord. Pope John Paul II was confident that Christ had already taken upon Himself all of our burdens. Therefore, he had to be faithful to his role and accept upon himself with trust in Jesus whatever moral suffering our benevolent God required of him.
"Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit" (Luke 23:46). The Holy Father was cognizant of his declining physical health and his ageing. He saw the progression--the deterioration--that had occurred. He referred to himself as an older person, well aware that soon he would be called by the Lord to make an account of his life.
Those who enjoyed access to Pope John Paul II on a frequent basis periodically commented on his serenity. He was tranquil about his approaching death, though he faced it with sufficient gravity. He trusted in the mercy of God but was also mindful of His justice. The Holy Father yielded to the divine will; with the grace that only comes from the Holy Spirit, he made himself into a pleasing oblation to the Eternal Father in union with the suffering Jesus.
As He Died
"It is finished" (John 19:30). Shortly before his painful death, the Holy Father asked that passages from Sacred Scripture relating the Passion of Christ be read to him. He also participated in the Stations of the Cross from his bed. Pope John Paul II found great consolation, as he had throughout his life, in meditating on the life-giving sufferings of Jesus.
There was now only one thing left for the Roman Pontiff to do: to join Jesus in saying, Consummatum est--"It is finished." And the Holy Father did! He accepted his death peacefully, though he had to endure excruciating suffering. In this submission he gave magnificent witness a final time to the importance of surrendering to the Lord and trusting in His unspeakable love and mercy.
"I know that my Redeemer lives, and that He will at last stand forth upon the dust" (Job 19:25). Faith was a hallmark of Pope John Paul II. He truly believed that one day he would see Jesus Christ in all His inimitable glory. For the Holy Father, the Redeemer was living and breathing, not a fading historical reality as the numerous human entities--Communism, materialism, consumerism, radical feminism--he strenuously fought are.
In harmony with the Church, the Holy Father anticipated the future "final comings" of Jesus: the first, at the death of each individual; the second, on the Last Day when the Messiah will appear triumphantly accompanied by the Angels. The last days on earth of the Bishop of Rome, which were filled with prayer and suffering, testified to his faith in God and his contention that it is very important to prepare well for the Particular Judgment that each of us will undergo.
"Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20) It has been reported that during the evening of April 2, 2005, which was the First Saturday of the month, after the Vigil Mass of the next day--"Divine Mercy" Sunday--was celebrated, the Holy Father recited the Holy Rosary with several of his associates and then uttered his last "Amen" at the precise moment before his death at 9:37 p.m. local time. This was supremely fitting. The fiat and Amen of his life and suffering would now give way as he returned to the Lord from Whom he came.
Only God Himself knows how often Pope John Paul II prayed, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" That authentic pining for Christ marked the Holy Father in his life, suffering and death. Would that the same be said for all disciples of Christ here on earth who await that wonderful day when they, too, will be summoned by the Creator.
Pope John Paul II--priest, prophet and leader--has left behind a tremendous legacy that is not meant merely to be esteemed but must be lived to the fullest. His unceasing concern for Jesus Christ and His Kingdom must now be translated without delay into the lives of all those who wish to follow the Savior.
The Holy Father loved the Risen Christ and showed it in his life, suffering and death. May that same charity be evident in our lives, suffering and deaths for the glory of the Lord and the salvation of souls, including our own.
(Copies available from Catholics United for the Faith [740-283-2484]. Used with permission.)
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Pope John Paul II
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