| 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
"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!
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.
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
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).
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."
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 documentsboth 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
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 dearlyand who announces:
"I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6).
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