People pack the pews during a Mass of thanksgiving for the canonizations of Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII April 27 at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Rochester, N.Y. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)
I crossed the Tiber early last Sunday morning, the crowds were so thick
and pushing that it took more than an hour to move the last 50 yards to
turn the corner onto Via Conciliazione and a view of St. Peter’s
There were pilgrims from all parts of the world:
Spaniards, Australians, a remarkable number of French (including a
couple whose five young children wore matching jackets), a large group
from Equatorial Guinea were also matching with commemorative traditional
garb marked with images of Pope John Paul. I saw Slovaks, Americans,
Nigerians, Lebanese, Italians, and legions of Poles young and old,
waving red and white flags and holding banners. More than one million
Poles came to Rome to see their native son raised to the altars. A
risk-taking American couple had brought along three of their children,
including a five-month-old in a baby carriage. At moments it was
unnerving to stand in such a crush of people, yet despite the multitude,
nearly everyone kept their calm and minded their manners. It was no
European football match.
The love that John Paul II evokes has
long perplexed journalists. George Weigel tells the story of a reporter
who was stunned to see 90,000 people in Denver's Mile High
Stadium chanting “JP II, we love you!" She attempted to explain away the
faithful as "Vatican plants." There is an attractiveness about sanctity
that doesn't fit into our normal categories. Perhaps this is why it is easier for the media not to deal with it.
I think we love John Paul II for a very simple reasonbecause, as St. John says of Christ, “He loved us first."
was a father to us. He called us to become more than we had thought
possible, to become what we were created to be. He spoke to our inner
being, about our fears and worries, about what it means to be a persona
genuine subject, amidst a culture that objectifies persons and often
discards them. He urged us to know ourselves, starting with the fact
that each one of us is created by God for a purpose, with dignity and
meaning that goes beyond what society deems as useful. John Paul's love
was not a banal, sentimental love. There was a sternness about him too,
that sometimes shamed us and said, “You must change your life.”
We recognized this love in him and we responded.
things better demonstrate this than the phenomenon that is World Youth
Day. No one predicted the incredible crowds of young people who would
travel and camp out to see the Pope. In Denver in 1993 the American
bishops were skeptical that the young people would even show up. As
Weigel notes in Witness to Hope, some quietly considered John Paul II a liability to the Church.
show up they did, by the busload. World Youth Day drew the largest
crowd in Colorado historymore a half-million people. Two years later,
five million people showed up to see the Pope in the Philippines, in
what some have estimated is the largest human gathering in the history
of the world.
John Paul’s style of relating to people, and
especially the young, was unique for a cleric of his era. From his days
as a young pastor and bishop, he went kayaking, skiing, and hiking with
lay people, engaging them one on one, learning about their struggles,
frustration, desires, hopes, and fears.
As Pope he took this same
style of engagement to the world. Philosopher Max Scheler, the subject
of Karol Wojtyla's dissertation, insisted that contrary to the popular
sentiment, love is not blind, in fact, it sees so clearly that it is
creative. It sees the potential in a person and draws it out. It does
not ignore faults or sins, or try to explain them away, but it doesn't
stop with them. Because love seeks the good of the other, it sees
possibility. Love is not satisfied with "I'm ok, you're ok," but
challenges us to virtue, to honesty with ourselves, to pursuit of the
good, the true, and the beautifuland to friendship with Jesus Christ.
words echoed in the quietness of our hearts: "Do not be afraid, do not
be satisfied with mediocrity, cast out your nets into the deep for a
catch." We sense that what this world offers is not enough. Pope John
Paul gave us the language and the vision to understand why.
reminded the world that none of ushowever poor or powerlessis merely a
tool, an object to be used by someone else. Each human being is a
“subject,” a creation willed by God for his or her own sake. Every life,
however inconvenient it might prove to others, is a "splendid gift of
God," a "sacred" trust that deserves our "loving care and veneration."
taught us about love and marriage, about sexuality and what it means to
be an embodied person. Our bodies are not simply matter, for use in the
service of "pleasure and efficiency." Sex itself, he wrote in Evangelium Vitae,
is a "sign, place and language of love...the gift of self and
acceptance of another, in all the other's richness as a person, not [an]
instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal
desires and instincts." Pope John Paul even told the unpopular truth
that sex outside of a public, permanent, commitment of marriage open to
life is "a lie of the body."
One student of mine was struck by how
John Paul seemed to understand her. "How does he know all of this about
me?" was a question I would often asked. My usual answer was that in
addition to being highly intelligent, he had a deeply sensitive and
intuitive soul nourished by hours of prayer and study. And he heard a
lot of confessions. Holding up a copy of Love and Responsibility, that student promised me, "I won't get married unless my future husband reads this book."
Paul taught us the meaning of suffering and its redemptive valueand
then he lived it, suffering as the world watched. He found the Cross no
easier than any of us does.
He taught us that joy was not
something to be grasped, but a gift to be received, the fruit of love
and service. And of course John Paul taught us about Jesus Christ, the
source of every joy.
Perhaps most important, amidst the
"dictatorship of relativism" John Paul told us the truth, even when we
were unwilling to hear it. People called him an ideologue and an
authoritarian. What he was however, was a true philosopher, a lover of
wisdom who knew that only a deep commitment to the "splendor of truth"
can withstand ideology and provide a path to answer the fundamental
questions that "no one can escape...What must I do? How do I distinguish
good from evil?" This resonated especially with young people who crave
the truth, yet too often are presented only with flattery, disdain, or
with ideological indoctrination that serves some interest.
John Paul II taught us, young and old, healthy and sick, what it means
to be a person with an eternal destiny called to friendship with Christ.
He was a father to us. He loved us and we love him back.
Once in response to the crowd's chant of "JPII, we love you," he replied, "JP II, he loves you." But we already knew this.