The indelible mark of Pope St. John Paul II

Santo Subito. “Sainthood now.” In the days leading up to Pope John Paul II’s death on April 2, 2005, the crowds of young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square chanted those words over and over again. Nine years later, on April 27, 2014, the Catholic Church answered them, declaring their hero “Pope St. John Paul II.”

The canonization was unprecedented in its quickness. No pope in 1,000 years had been raised to the altar with such speed. But John Paul II’s 26-year-papacy was equally unprecedented.

Spanning two centuries, four decades and a seemingly endless series of social and political revolutions — from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the advent of the Internet — Pope John Paul II shepherded the Church through an age of upheaval and change. To that task, he brought to bear his wide-ranging experience as a poet, playwright, philosopher, theologian, professor and pastor. Not surprisingly, he left behind him a legacy as epic in scope as the era in which he reigned.

On the 10th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s death, Our Sunday Visitor looks back on just a fraction of that legacy. It includes:

1. Theology of the Body

In 1978, when Archbishop Karol Wojtyla left Poland to elect Pope John Paul I’s successor, a completed manuscript sat on his desk in Krakow. Steeped in Thomism and Scripture, but employing the philosophical language of personalism, the book was an extended meditation on the human person — on what it means to be made in the image of God. After his election to the papacy, Pope John Paul II decided not to publish the book. Instead, he introduced it to the world piece by piece through his Wednesday general audiences. Now known to the world as the Theology of the Body, John Paul II’s anthropology gave the Church a new language with which to address the fallout of the sexual revolution and help Christians recover a sacramental understanding of the world.

2. World Youth Days

In 1987, Pope St. John Paul II traveled to Argentina for the first World Youth Day. Tens of thousands of young people turned out, eager to see their pope. As the years passed, and the Church hosted other World Youth Days around the globe, the crowds only grew. More than a half a million young people turned out for the pope’s closing Mass in Denver, Colorado. More than 5 million — the largest recorded crowd in history — greeted him in the Philippines. With each successive World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II helped the Church see that it didn’t need to change in order to inspire young people; rather, it needed to challenge young people to change — to be bolder, more faithful and more heroic. The gatherings also helped inspire a new generation of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, as well as new religious orders, apostolates and ministries.

3. Luminous Mysteries

For more than 500 years, as the Catholic faithful prayed the Rosary, they meditated upon the joyful childhood of Christ, the sorrowful Passion of Christ, and the glorious triumph of the resurrected Christ. Then, in 2002, Pope St. John Paul II gave them something new to contemplate. Outlined in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“Rosary of the Virgin Mary”), the Luminous Mysteries completed the story arc of Christ’s life on earth, featuring highlights from his ministry and illuminating his mission in salvation history as the Son of God and Son of David, the new Adam and the new Moses.

4. Catechetical renewal

In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II convened an extraordinary Synod of Bishops to address the state of the Church 20 years after Vatican II. One of the conclusions reached by the synod was that the state of catechesis in the Church had somewhat deteriorated, with the Faith at times being handed on poorly, in pieces or barely at all. To help get the Church back on track, the pope appointed a commission to draft the first universal Catechism of the Catholic Church in more than 400 years. He promulgated the comprehensive compendium of Catholic doctrine in 1992, setting the stage for the renewal of catechesis within the Church at every level.

5. The fall of communism

Pope St. John Paul II wasn’t a politician, but he was a diplomat and an actor who knew how to use the powers of negotiation and spectacle to his advantage. He employed both throughout the 1980s, as he engaged the communist governments of the East, quietly calling them to account on human rights violations, while publicly inspiring the people of his native Poland and elsewhere to peacefully campaign for political freedom. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union broke apart shortly thereafter, historians credited part of that victory to John Paul II, both for his example of prayerful resistance and the hope he gave to millions behind the Iron Curtain.

6. A cloud of witnesses

From the mid-13th century (when the Vatican formalized the process for sainthood) until 1978, the Catholic Church canonized fewer than 450 men and women. Between 1978 and 2005, however, Pope St. John Paul II conferred that honor on more than 480 people. He also beatified nearly 1,300 more. Included among the saints were a wife and medical doctor (St. Gianna Beretta Molla); a Jewish philosopher turned Carmelite nun (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — who was also known as Edith Stein); and a priest who founded an ecclesial movement for lay persons (St. Josemaría Escrivá). Through both the number and kinds of saints Pope John Paul II raised to the altar, he demonstrated that holiness wasn’t for a precious few and that the priesthood and religious life weren’t the only paths to sanctity.

7. A new feminism

Early in the 20th century, as debates raged about the role of women in society, three Catholic women — Edith Stein, Gertrud von le Fort and Caryll Houselander — articulated a philosophy of woman as spiritual mother: receptive, nurturing and irreplaceable whether at home or office. As pope, John Paul II built upon their work. Through his encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem (“The Feminine Vocation”), as well as his “Letter to Women,” “Letter to Families,” and Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), he defended women against those who reduced them to sexual objects, denied their unique orientation toward bearing and nurturing life, or denied their equal dignity to men. Through it all, he led the world to a deeper understanding of “the feminine genius” and offered a life-giving alternative to the dominant strains of Western feminism.

8. New Evangelization

Although the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council charged Catholics with engaging the culture and renewing the temporal order, the post-conciliar Church was defined more by internecine squabbling than by evangelization. Pope St. John Paul II set out to change that, calling for a New Evangelization that reached out to the baptized and unbaptized alike. He also demonstrated what he meant by a “New Evangelization” — traveling the world to preach Christ, using the media to reach people outside the Church, and showing the relevance of the Faith to every aspect of life, from sports and entertainment to friendships and music. Through it all, he stressed that the goal of the New Evangelization wasn’t merely more baptized Catholics, but rather the transformation of the culture of death into a culture of life and a civilization of love.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

'Bless Us, Holy Father'
On April 8, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square — 11 days before he was elected pope and chose the name Benedict XVI — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave the homily at the funeral Mass for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Here is an excerpt from that homily: