Today we celebrate a man who was an actor, a poet, a playwright, a philosopher, an adventurer, and a priest. Most of us knew him as Pope John Paul II. Thirty-eight years ago he was made the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. He fought communism, knew the tragic early loss of his family, liked to ski & canoe & camp & hike, traveled the world, ecumenically embraced people of other faiths, and called for the New Evangelization in the Church. His influence on the Church and the world is inestimable. There are books, magazine articles,blog posts, movies, and the like describing him, his life, and his impact on the human community as whole. I could not aspire to write adequately on those things. Instead, I aim only to share the inestimable impact he has had on my own life as far as I am able to articulate it in a manageable blog post.
He was a name I knew and hazily understood in my childhood. I didn’t really get who the pope was growing up, but as my mother had many books with his name on it, I knew who John Paul II was. I distinctly remember when he died because my poor mother cried for days on end. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to get a grip on his significance. I was first introduced to his Theology of the Body via Jason and Crystalina Evert when I was fourteen. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. His work on human sexuality and on the human person in the light of Christ radically turned my life upside down. It was a major influence in my true conversion to realizing that, as he said, life with Christ “is the most wonderful adventure of our lives.” His beatification in 2011 cause a lot of hubbub in my home parish youth group. He was the pope of our childhood who we were only beginning to discover. At the time, I thought I had good grasp on Theology of the Body and the cool pope of the youth who had artsy pictures camping out and about in the Polish mountains with young people.
When I came to college, I immediately became involved in our campus’ Theology of the Body Ministry, and my understanding began to open and flourish in ways I had never anticipated. I began to read his encyclicals, to read homilies, and heard more about his influence during the Second Vatican Council and in its implementation. At the end of my freshman year he was canonized a saint, and my friends and I were overjoyed. I continued to learn more about him and to read more of his works. At the end of my sophomore year, I discerned to join our Theology of the Body Ministry team. I felt on my heart the call to share his authentic understanding of who man is and who he is called to be. Around this time last year, I made pilgrimage to Rome and was able to pray outside his tomb. It was extraordinary.
This year, has been the year of John Paul II for me more than ever before. In June, I began working as the Family Initiatives Intern for the St. John Paul II Foundation where I help primarily with the Together in Holiness marriage conferences. It has been an immense blessing working for the Foundation, but most particularly it has been a privilege to work with people there who are deeply passionate about sharing the works of this great man in three different initiatives with both lay people and the clergy. This year I also accepted the co-head leadership for our Theology of the Body Ministry on campus. It has been an absolute joy and has added so much richness to my life. The ministry is flourishing this year. Many fruitful conversations have been taking place on what it means to be human, authentic femininity and masculinity, and true chastity as a virtue. The team of students I have been able to work with in our ministry have such big hearts to serve our Lord and serve their brothers and sisters on campus.
In addition to these “ordinary” privileges was the extraordinary privilege of going to World Youth Day in Poland this July. For a week I was able to walk in his steps in his beloved and beautiful home country. I was able to participate in an international celebration of my faith with millions of my brothers and sisters in Christ, a celebration he inaugurated as pope. He had a heart for the youth, and so do young people still have a deep and abiding affection for him. There was a day of that pilgrimage that is only just now beginning to truly dawn on me. We spent several hours in his hometown of Wadowice, a village a little distance from Kraków. We were able to go the museum there that exists in the building where he was born and lived the first part of his life. We pressed our faces against the glass where letters he wrote, ski gear he skied with, and cassocks he wore were displayed. We stood in the room where he made his entrance into the world. We walked around in the gorgeous church where he received all his sacraments of initiation. There we venerated his relics. What. Joy.
The truly beautiful mystery is that he was born a small boy named Karol in a small village in Poland with people who loved him, but he did not seem to be marked for greatness. Yet he died as the successor of St. Peter after heroically bearing the cross of a debilitating disease in the Vatican with thousands gathered in St. Peter’s square singing and praying for him. He affected the lives of untold millions, he who as a young man did not want to be a priest but an actor. Pope St. John Paul II is extraordinary not in what he was able to do though he did accomplish some amazing things, but he is rather extraordinary in his cooperation with grace. He rose to the occasion of his call to holiness. He was not perfect, nor was his pontificate. He was as human and as weak as you or I. But he lived authentically for the sake of Christ, and not for his own sake. He embodied the truth that man only discovers himself through an authentic gift of himself. He gave his life for the Body of Christ, the Church.
Today’s first reading from Ephesians 4:7-16 is particularly apt for the celebration of this dear man and saint.
Brothers and sisters: Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says: He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men. What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower regions of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the Body’s growth and builds itself up in love
It is because a man named Karol became a man called John Paul II that I have the amazing internship that I have. It is because that man dedicated himself to philosophy and theology as well as a truly theological anthropology that I am able to serve in a ministry dedicated to a sexual integrity founded in the goodness of their identity as created lovingly by God. It is so much due to that man that I myself came as I did into my faith at such a critical time in my life. It is because he was who he was meant to be that I am helped to be who I am meant to be.
He became a saint. I want to be a saint. And I want you to become a saint. This is our primary call: to holiness. This is not a trite, fluffy saying to assuage the consciousnesses of Christians. To be holy means to be set apart. To be set apart for what, or rather, for whom? Holiness means to be set apart for accomplishing the will of God. It is a difficult, arduous task in human terms. But all things are possible in Christ, and the Lord works for the good of those who love Him. It takes our cooperation with grace. It takes our conversion, our turning towards the One who made us with purpose. This can be intimidating. Fear and sin gets in my way daily. Yet, in his homily on the occasion of his installation of pope, thirty-eight years ago today, Pope John Paul II gave these words of encouragement:
Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it. So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.
Open wide the doors for Christ in your heart. Daily answer your call to holiness. And ask Pope St. John Paul II for his intercession. Know that I’m praying for you, and I ask you to pray for me.
May God bless you on your way!