By Russell Shaw - The Priest, 5/1/2011
Two vignettes from St. Peter’s Square, more than 26 years apart, sum up the essence of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.
The first took place the evening of Oct. 16, 1978. Just a short time before, the world had learned that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow had been elected pope and had taken the name John Paul. Very few of us in the square knew exactly what that meant. A Polish pope? How could that be? Who was this unfamiliar man who stood now in the loggia of St. Peter’s wearing papal garb? We waited eagerly, and not a little anxiously, to hear what he’d say.
He looked out over the crowd, pausing with the natural timing of a man who’d been an actor in his youth. Then he spoke, his voice — that deep, distinctive, fatherly voice which the whole world would hear so often in the years ahead — rumbling like friendly thunder across the vast open space.
“Praised be Jesus Christ! I present myself to you all, to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, with the help of God and the help of men.”
The words were exactly right. Hearing them, I and the rest of that crowd felt relieved. We’d suffered some hard times since Vatican Council II, but now the old Church was entering a new era with a charismatic leader at the helm. Praised indeed be Jesus Christ!
The second vignette is from a raw, damp Sunday morning in late February of 2005. Shortly before noon I was standing in the square with several thousand other people — because of the weather, a comparatively small crowd for that time and place — waiting for Pope John Paul to lead the Angelus and give his weekly Angelus talk.
More precisely, some of us were waiting to see whether there would be an Angelus and a talk. In late January the Pope was said to have the flu. Overnight, on February 2, he had been hospitalized, and only on February 10 did he return to the Vatican. Having suffered from Parkinsonism for years, John Paul was physically weakened and in declining health. Anything could happen.
So it was reasonable to wonder if he would be up to leading the Angelus this particular Sunday. The weather was truly wretched — the sort of day when no one had to apologize for staying in and keeping warm, least of all an elderly man in frail health who’d lately been hospitalized for over a week.
But, a few minutes before noon, the window of the Pope’s apartment opened and the tapestry bearing the papal coat of arms was unfurled. Promptly on the hour the Holy Father appeared, a tiny figure in white at the open window far above the square.
Again that old actor’s pause — or was it something else now? At last he began to speak.
It was agony to listen. John Paul gasped for breath, struggling to force out each word, each syllable. The courage and determination of the man were astonishing. But a thought flashed through my head: “I wonder if it’s a good idea for him to be standing at an open window doing what he’s doing on a day like this.”
That was Sunday. The following Thursday, John Paul II was rushed to the hospital again and a tracheotomy was performed to permit him to breathe. From then on it was only a matter of time. He returned to the Vatican on March 13. At 9:37 on the evening of April 2 he left us. “Let me go to the Father’s house” were his last words.
During the 26 years and four months that passed between these two vignettes in the square, John Paul II made a huge impact on the Church and the world and earned a lasting place in the pages of history.
It’s said that greatness resides not so much in what a person does as in what he or she is. Although John Paul did many great things, it was clear that this was a man who possessed the indefinable quality called greatness in himself. People who refer to him as “John Paul the Great” speak the simple truth.
Now, in designating him “Blessed,” the Church is formally confirming something about him that includes but also transcends greatness itself — sanctity.
Philosopher, pastor, poet, man of action and man of prayer, even before coming to the papacy he confronted the two great totalitarian heresies of the 20th century — Nazism and Communism — and emerged from the struggle with indomitable faith. At the same time, he looked deeply into the spirit-starved heart of Western consumerist secularism and preached a powerful message of hope.
He came to the papacy in deeply troubled times. Pope Paul VI had struggled bravely with the challenges of the postconciliar Church, but as time passed and what he called the “smoke of Satan” threatened to smother the renewal he sought, he grew increasingly weary and sad.
These were the years of the Great Defection, when thousands of priests and religious left the priesthood and religious life, leaving many lay people to wander like sheep without a shepherd. Meanwhile the world was undergoing radical transformation via a cultural-sexual revolution, and nations remained in the relentless grip of a cold war that threatened to turn hot. The sudden death of Pope John Paul I after a one-month pontificate came as a cruel blow to many people’s hopes.
And then John Paul II arrived on the scene.
His first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, set out his program with bold strokes. In a word, the program was Christ, the one who, in the words of Vatican II, “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22).
John Paul wrote: “In Christ and through Christ God has revealed himself fully to mankind and has definitively drawn close to it; at the same time, in Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his humanity” (Redemptor Hominis, No. 11).
This profoundly Christian anthropology, with its emphasis on the Christ-centered dignity of the human person, was at the center of his years as supreme pastor and teacher of the Church. Throughout that quarter-century-plus of dramatic travels, remarkable documents, and eye-catching gestures, the constant focus was upon Jesus Christ and the radical difference He makes in human life and history.
Great and saintly man though he was, Pope John Paul II sometimes made mistakes. Is that surprising? If making mistakes disqualified people for beatification and canonization, the Church would have very few blesseds and saints.
He was slow to recognize and to move to address the problem of clergy sex abuse. It seems clear now that he was bamboozled by Father Marcial Maciel, the two-faced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. John Paul, it seems, was simply too much in admiration of the priesthood to be able to accept the idea that some of his brother priests — men who had been ordained to serve others in the person of Christ — could do such things. Nor did he find it easy to comprehend that his brother bishops could bungle the situation as badly as some did.
Sometimes, too, he made mistakes in his choice of bishops. In fact, the “John Paul II Bishops,” as they were called, were in general good men who made, and in many cases are today still making, important contributions to the life of the Church. But now and then there were exceptions. Bad information from nuncios and people in the Curia didn’t help.
Moreover, despite some gestures, in the end he failed to reign in rebellious religious orders engaged in disturbing the good order of the Church.
But his mistakes were easily overshadowed by his triumphant pastoral visits, especially to his Polish homeland, by his pivotal role in the fall of Communism, by the stream of brilliant teaching documents, and by the intellectual and moral stature of this man who captured the imaginations of non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Only God knows how many thousands of priests, religious, and committed lay people owe their vocations, at least in part, to the model of John Paul II.
Ultimately, his most compelling catechesis was the public witness of his long suffering and death. He might have taken steps to conceal that process of diminishment from the eyes of the world. Instead — as I and the others in St. Peter’s Square that damp, chilly morning in February six years ago saw so vividly enacted — he made use even of the sights and sounds of his weakness to show how a man of faith and courage goes to meet his Lord.
Blessed John Paul the Great indeed! TP
Mr. Shaw is contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly.
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