When we got married, my husband and I arranged—rather belatedly, because we only got around to it some while after the wedding—for one of those papal blessings that come on a sort of scroll with vaguely gothic lettering and a picture of the pope and some Roman basilicas. The pope was John Paul II, and I had the scroll framed and hung it in our home. It hangs there still, our home no longer being the rented bedsit of those early days, or the Army quarters in Berlin, but the modest suburban maisonette a few miles from the Thames where we’ve now lived for over a quarter of a century.
I wasn’t particularly excited about John Paul II in those early days. He was pope, and that was fine by me, but I’m not sure I would have listed him as one of my major heroes. Popes come and go; the important thing is that there is one—that we’ve got a Peter, a rock. The real issue is Jesus Christ, and trying to live as one of His disciples.
But living in Berlin gave pause for thought, with the Wall dominating life and the wretched slogans that looked so stupid and stark when we visited what was then East Berlin. I remember one such slogan that could not fail to strike the mind with its particular absurdity as it announced, on a banner across the front of the Polish Embassy on the Unter den Linden: “The Polish people are celebrating with joy the centenary of Karl Marx”. As if the whole world didn’t know that the Polish people were doing nothing of the kind.
In the Berlin of the early 1980s, Communism was at once a gruesome fixture and a tired and sagging how-long-can-this-rubbish-actually-last project that felt frayed and pointless. I remember Checkpoint Charlie as having a dreary quality; somehow it all felt like an old black and white film from decades earlier. And my own involvement with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which was at that time giving support to churches across Eastern Europe, had taught me how Marxism was viewed with cynicism in the countries where it was enforced, and how vibrant was the opposition to it.
Papa Wojtyła, the Polish pope, had visited Britain in 1982, the first Pope in history to do so. It was a joyful visit, made more interesting and poignant because it came at the time of the Falklands War and he had rushed in a visit to Argentina so as not to show favouritism. Vast crowds cheered him in London and Manchester and Cardiff and Edinburgh. He had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. He broke down barriers of misunderstanding that had lasted for centuries: from 1982 onwards, the old pope-is-antichrist slogans, already regarded as a bit daft, slithered away.
But it was only as the 1980s rolled on that I began to recognise that with this pope we were sharing some truly great adventures. The post-Vatican II sense of wobble gave way to a surge of renewed faith and certainty. Things were still flying off in various directions (Lefebvrists in one direction, liberation theologians another) but the core was strong and all would be well. The pilgrim visits to Poland opened up the cracks in the Communist system through which the joyful waters of hope poured and changed history. The worldwide missionary journeys brought a fresh vision of the Church to millions.
When John Paul celebrated Mass you could sense that it was a communion with Christ that took him into another place, and that this is so of every Mass, which is the summit of the Faith. He reminded us all about Confession, he renewed devotion to the Rosary, and he brought new generations to their knees in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. When he launched—almost casually, as I recall—World Youth Day, he gave the world something that swept Christianity magnificently into the new millennium.
He died ten years ago, on April 2, 2005. When I now give talks about him to young people they mostly say “Oh yes, I remember his funeral…I was in primary school” or “My grandma has pictures of him.” They think of him as a saint—one of the well-known ones, up there with Francis of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux and Bernadette, instantly recognisable. They know he called on the young to be strong in the faith and to have a sense of mission. They take for granted that going to World Youth Day is one of those things that many Catholics, not just young Catholics, would aspire to do, like going on pilgrimage to Lourdes or visiting Rome. They weren’t surprised or puzzled by his speedy canonisation: this was a man very nearly martyred back in 1982, a shepherd whose preaching and teaching took him to country after country with seemingly inexhaustible journeys with a mission to tell everyone about Christ.
And last bit is the really important thing. The papacy only exists to serve Jesus Christ. When Benedict XVI came to Britain—a visit which was in a sense more powerful than that of John Paul and with an almost miraculous quality to it, overcoming so many obstacles and radiating so much joy and goodwill—there was a recognition that the Catholic Church had something crucial to say and would always—always—be around to say it.
John Paul II gave back to the Catholic Church a sense of confidence that the Church seemed to have lost in the immediate post-Vatican II years. Historians will note that this may have been his greatest achievement. Some will argue that the Marxist ideology and vicious Communist rule over half of Europe would eventually have crumbled anyway. They will certainly note that John Paul’s passionate calls to defend babies from abortion, sexual union from defilement, and human communities from self-destruction by greed and narcissistic vulgarity, fell on deaf ears. They will sneer at his failures, while admitting his personal sanctity.
But for those of us who were young when John Paul II called to the young, for those of us who embarked on matrimony when he spoke so gloriously about God’s plan for marriage and family, for those who lived in a divided Europe and lived to see the barriers crumble, for those who knew a struggling Church and grew to full maturity in a more secure one—for us, St John Paul the Great is a hero in heaven. He is our hero.
This year, the Bogles celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. The scroll is still in place and the sturdy frame, made by my father, still protects the picture of a then-youngish John Paul raising his hand in blessing. Last year we went to Rome for the canonisation. Thank you, St John Paul the Great!
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