The lessons of St. John Paul II

The pontificate of the Polish pope changed the Church, and the world, forever.

Pope John Paul II sits with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in Rome's Rebibbia prison in 1983. The pope suffered serious intestinal wounds after the gunman fired shots at him in St. Peter's Square May 13, 1981. The pope publicly forgave Agca and later said he did so "because that's what Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches us to forgive.' (CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano)

Next year, 2020, will see the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most remarkable men of our times.

In today’s West, it is almost standard to assume that anyone whose life has been marked by difficulty, loss, or tragedy should be viewed primarily through the lens of that victim status. For young Karol Wojtyla, born in middle Europe in 1920, the lens was missing: he never saw himself as a victim. His mother died when he was a small child, his older brother a short while later. He lived in a two-room apartment with his father on the latter’s small Army pension. When, as a young man, he went to study at Krakow he lost, within 12 months, his university (closed by the Nazis), his country (invaded), and his father (who died of natural causes in the first winter of the War). By the end of his teens, he had lost all his immediate family and was working in a stone quarry under the forced-labour laws of the Nazi regime.

But his lens was that of the Church—trusting in God, devoted to Mary with a specific form of knightly chivalry which he would later seek to share with the world, encircled with friends, and intellectually stimulated and challenged by each new turning-point.

During his pontificate, a number of films were made of his life: it was irresistible with that mix of wartime underground theatre, secret training as a priest, post-war work in Communist Poland, participation in Vatican II, and then election to the papacy. There were also of course a great many books, of which only a few really caught the spirit of the man, while some missed his message entirely and lamented his orthodoxy on sexual ethics, his “old-fashioned” Marian devotion, his insistence on doctrinal truth, and his Eucharistic focus.

He redrew the map of Europe: his triumphant return to Poland in 1979 began a series of events that culminated in the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He gave us World Youth Day, the Theology of the Body, and a revival of devotion to the Rosary, to which he added a new set of Mysteries to round out the commemoration of our redemption. He travelled the world on missionary journeys that drew millions, breaking records for attendance at crowd events (seven million at one Mass in the Philippines). In his pontificate, we got the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a fully updated Canon Law, a vast array of new saints—more than had ever been canonised before in history—and devotion to the Divine Mercy. He oversaw restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and led a profound systematic penitence and renewal for the Church leading up to the millennium. He skied, he swam, he went on mountain hikes. He came to Britain and had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, cementing a new relationship with Britain after a 400-year-old break.

He survived two assassination attempts, the first of which nearly succeeded when he was shot at point-blank range in St Peter’s Square by a trained gunman, the second an unsuccessful stabbing in Fatima by a priest of an extreme traditionalist group.

He had innumerable critics. To this day, there are angry websites denouncing him for wearing a feathered Native American headdress, for hugging women, for showing undue respect for the Koran, for bringing world religious leaders together to pray for peace.

He was an innovator soaked in the rich traditions of the Church, a man of physical courage who found his strength in spiritual truth, and a mystic with a robust and cheerful style that endeared him to non-believers and even to cynics.

It is the mysticism that needs exploring: his devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and the fact of both assassination attempts being on her feast day; the depth of his concentration in prayer, such that assistants often had gently to nudge him at Mass as he became rapt in devotion following the Consecration. There were stories during his life of people being healed after he prayed with them. After his death, people began asking his intercession and miracles abounded.

We lived through a colossal adventure with St John Paul II—or, more accurately, a series of adventures. We need his prayers now. Let’s celebrate today, his feast day, beg his intercession, and look ahead, as he always did, with trust in God and with hope.

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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.


  1. “to which he added a new set of Mysteries”

    He proposed a new set; he did not “add” them in the sense of making them obligatory. Proposals can be declined.

      • I didn’t say they were. But I’m tired of seeing the traditional way of saying the Rosary denigrated as somehow defective, and reading about how Pope St. John Paul II “ordered” that more mysteries be added. (Joanna Bogle didn’t use that word, but I’ve seen it elsewhere).

  2. Again as said a great man and great pontiff mindlessly demeaned by ‘far right’ traditional Catholics. As not Pius X as not perfect. Perfection has facets some of which are overlooked. When I heard the name on my crackling car radio driving across the Colorado Rockies Karol Wojtyla a Polish pope unexpected exciting after centuries of Italians. There’s too much to cover regarding the greatness of his legacy covered well by Ms Bogle. He was providential the Church needing charisma to draw youth and they got it with Wojtyla. And holiness. And a mysterious nexus with Nazi Germany. “FEBRUARY 29, 1944: Karol is struck by a German truck, but a German officer stops a car and orders its driver to drive to Pole to hospital. He is treated for a brain concussion and lacerations to the head” (Pol Am Journal Foundation). Was it providential? Yes. A young German Wehrmacht soldier [he hated Nazism] Josef Ratzinger was then manning an anti aircraft battery later to become John Paul II’s indispensable most trusted theologian as prefect of the CDF. When the CDF was a functioning body rather than the present Vatican eviscerated sham. Suppressed left a meaningless corpse somewhat like the John Paul II Institute except now that Institute is a revisionist Vatican arm reinventing the family and the revealed nature of human sexuality. Soldier Ratzinger beseeched John Paul to be allowed to retire as prefect refused time and again the Polish pope knowing Ratzinger’s value. His Doctrinal Commentary to Ad Tuendam Fides stands alongside the Pontiff’s great legacy Veritatis Splendor. Ratzinger as Benedict XVI wrote the magnificent Jesus of Nazareth in which he demonstrates Sacred Scripture cannot be divested of its literal spiritual dimension by any form of scriptural historiography. In tandem with Truth as revealed and exemplified by his predecessor. Most of all John Paul II gave the common presbyter an example of heroic courage manning his post despite the awful handicap of advanced Parkinson’s. A meaningless affront to a group of German Hierarchy who impatiently sought the election of their ‘man’. Although in the vision of God an act of supreme love emulating his divine Master.

    • Fr., our concerns and reservations about Pope John Paul II are not mindless by any means, but are grounded in the truth of Catholic Tradition and the facts that suffused us from 1978 to 2005.

      The pope took extensive liberties with certain classical Church teachings, sowed confusion with regard to Church teaching in key areas, and was part of a sequence of popes who presided over the greatest eroding crisis the Church has ever witnessed. One that is far from over, if the presence of Pachamama in the Holy See is any reasonable indicator.

      His 1988 liturgical statement alone, that the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council was a great, visible fruit of the council, that somehow the 1970-1988 period was a rousing success in Latin rite reformed worship is simply mind-boggling craziness.

      What positive traits he had, and what positive things he did as pope cannot make up for the serious lapses that he was responsible for. And I am not even addressing the scandalous sexual abuse crisis that festered in the Church during this time period.

    • Yes, as well as the debasement of the liturgy. And those concerns are not simply phantoms in the fevered imaginations of “far right” traditionalists, either.

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