October 14, 2003

A Salute to Pope John Paul II:
25 Years of Heroic Faith

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


A model of heroic faith
Jesus: the key to understanding who we are
The pope preaches a parallel message in the United States
The pope's heroic faith led us into the Third Millennium

This month, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II with a Friar Jack Musing on the Holy Father. A Catechism quiz edition will be sent out in two weeks, and we will return to our regular schedule next month. Holy Father, you have our prayers and congratulations! May the Spirit illumine your path!

On October 16, 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Cracow, Poland, was elected pope and took the name of John Paul II. Six days later, he was formally enthroned as the 264th head of the Roman Catholic Church. It was October 22, a Sunday, and I remember it well. Although I was not present with the crowds in St. Peter's Square, I received a strong personal message from the newly inaugurated pope. Well, it was a "personal message" only in a figurative sense, but it seemed personal to me!

Here's how I described my experience in A Retreat With Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001): "My alarm radio went off early, as usual, that October morning in 1978. Still half asleep, I was distantly aware of a resonant male voice, ringing with conviction and drama, saying: 'Be not afraid.' As my drowsiness wore off, I grasped more clearly what the speaker was boldly proclaiming: Jesus Christ is present in human history, and we have nothing to fear.

"The voice was that of Pope John Paul II, speaking from St. Peter's Square in Vatican City at the very beginning of his papacy.

"'Brothers and sisters,' the pope proclaimed with vibrant faith, 'Don't be afraid to welcome Christ and to accept his power.'" The fact that the new pope was saying these words in clear English was rather amazing in itself. It gave his words an immediacy for me. And to this day, I still feel the boost that John Paul's bold words gave to my faith!

A model of heroic faith

As I read biographies of John Paul II in preparation for writing A Retreat With Pope John Paul II, one characteristic of the man seemed to outshine all others in my mind, namely that he was truly "a model of heroic faith."

That heroic faith, moreover, was clearly anchored in Christ himself. Indeed, from the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul made Christ a central focus of his spirituality. The title of John Paul II's very first encyclical, released in 1979, was Redeemer of the Human Race. This document is a treatise on Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. In it, the pope explores the nature of Jesus Christ himself. And one of the pope's consistent insights is that Jesus came to this earth to become the model of our humanity.

Jesus: the key to understanding who we are

As human beings, the pope observes, we all ask the question: Who am I? Who am I meant to become? What is my value or destiny as a human being? Who will become for me the model of my humanity? Pope John Paul II tells us that ultimately Jesus Christ is the answer to these questions. Christ is the living blueprint and pattern for our humanity. Jesus Christ reveals our meaning to us.

Thus Pope John Paul II, quoting Vatican II in his Redeemer of the Human Race, writes: "Christ...fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling." "In Christ and through Christ," the pope adds, all are enabled to come to "full awareness of their dignity...and of the meaning of their existence."

In his travels the new pope did not waste time in courageously proclaiming this important aspect of Christ's message:

"In June 1979, during his first trip to Poland as pope, John Paul II made an incredibly bold statement that hammered this point home. In the center of Warsaw's Victory Square, the pope said words that gave heart to the Catholic faithful while sending signals of alarm to the Communist Party leaders: 'To Poland, the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding the great and fundamental reality that is man.' And because Christ is such a great model for our humanity, 'Christ cannot be excluded from human history in any part of the globe, from any latitude or longitude of the earth. Excluding Christ from human history is a sin against humanity'" (from A Retreat With Pope John Paul II, p. 17).

The pope preaches a parallel message in the United States

On October 3, 1979, the pope shared similar thoughts with American youth at New York's Madison Square Garden. This was during his first visit as pope to the United States. Again, he made the point that in Christ we all find the key to our meaning as human beings. Jesus is the model and blueprint of the fully developed human being. Jesus is the answer to the question: What is my true meaning as a human being? Let's all, young and old, open our hearts to John Paul's words:

"I invite you today to look to Christ. When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ who is the fullness of humanity. And when you wonder about your role in the future of the world and of the United States, look to Christ. Only in Christ will you fulfill your potential as an American citizen and as a citizen of the world community."

The pope's heroic faith led us into the Third Millennium

These inspiring thoughts take us back to the beginning of John Paul II's pontificate. Memories of those early days trigger nostalgia in the hearts of those of us who were alive and active at the time. But the pope's focus on Christ, as well as the pope's heroic faith itself, has continued to the present day. His faith-filled words—"Be not afraid to open the door to Christ"—became the watchwords for the Catholic community and others during those years and days when as a Church we were approaching, celebrating and crossing over into the new millennium.

Pope John Paul II's heroic faith was evident in the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 itself, when, for example, he boldly decided to hold a Day of Pardon (March 13, 2000) at St. Peter's Basilica, whereby the Catholic community publicly confessed its sins and failings. "The public act of repentance," reported The New York Times, "was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one that the ailing 79-year-old pope pushed forward over the doubts of even many of his own cardinals and bishops." This was certainly a most meaningful gesture of heroic faith.

So was John Paul's pilgrimage to the Holy Land the same year, when he personally visited, preached and prayed at the key sites of Jesus' earthly life, especially those marking his Incarnation, birth, death and Resurrection.

And even more recently, if we simply look back over the last 12 months of his pontificate, we note that, among many other accomplishments, Pope John Paul II has published two groundbreaking papal documents—both very important in bolstering our faith in Christ. The first was his apostolic letter, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary (October 16, 2002) in which he strengthened the Christ-centered nature of that popular prayer, adding five new mysteries that highlight Christ's adult active ministry. Then on Holy Thursday (April 17, 2003), the pope released his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharista. In this document, John Paul asserts: "The most holy Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth, Christ himself, our passover and living bread."

Pope John Paul II began the first 25 years of his pontificate boldly focused on Christ. And now as the 25 years come to an end, he has clearly "stayed the course" with the same heroic faith with which he began, and without removing his gaze from Jesus Christ, "the model of our humanity."

A final blessing: We ask God's blessing on our faith-filled leader in every way. May John Paul II and the whole community of faith continue to be enlightened and emboldened by the one who loves us dearly—and who announces: "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6).

Send your feedback to friarjack@franciscanmedia.org.

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