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 on May 18th 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 twelve 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-labor 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, circled 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 the 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 all records for attendance at crowd events (seven million at one Mass in the Philippines). During his pontificate, we got the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an updated Canon Law, a vast array of new saints—more than had ever been canonized 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-long break.
He survived two assassination attempts, the first nearly succeeding 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 sites 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 which endeared him to non-believers and even to cynics.
It is the mysticism that needs further 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. Pope St. John Paul II, pray for us!
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