The man who inspired a generation
One of the most significant events in 2014 was the first celebration of Pope Saint John Paul II’s first feast day on October 22. For over 26 years, through his teaching, actions and personal witness, John Paul II gave the Church a pontificate that has been, in the words of papal biographer George Weigel, “the most consequential since the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century.”
Heare are my top five reasons why Pope Saint John Paul II’s first feast day occasioned a huge outpouring of love and remembrance for a pope that the throngs at his funeral spontaneously declared "great."
5. Prolific saint-maker. Saint John Paul II beatified over 1,300 holy men and women and canonized close to 500 saints. Why is this important? Saints, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, are “the greatest apologetic for our faith.” We see in them “a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.”
In trying to live out Lumen Gentium’s call to “universal holiness”—meaning that everyone (not just priests and religious) has a vocation to become holy, imitating Christ’s merciful, sacrificial love for others—we can draw inspiration and hope from the lives of ordinary people who became saints. Mind you, it can be difficult to relate to saints who lived centuries ago in times and places very different from our own. Really, how many of us could survive as a desert monk? But the lives of 20th century saints canonized by John Paul II can help point the way as we stumble along our own path toward holiness.
For every 20th century priest or religious canonized by John Paul II—such as Maximilian Kolbe, Faustina Kowalska, Teresa of Jesus of the Andes, Padre Pio and Josemaria Escrivá—we can also find, for example, Katharine Drexel (a former heiress), Josephine Bakhita (a former slave) and Edith Stein (a philosopher and teacher into her early 40s when she entered the Carmelites), and physician, wife and mother Gianna Beretta Molla, who was one of more than 250 lay women and men canonized by John Paul II.
4. Globe-trotting pastor. Pope Francis speaks of going to the peripheries to seek out the lost and forsaken. Pope Saint John Paul II set an outstanding example in this regard, of course, visiting an astounding 129 countries. Everywhere he traveled, John Paul brought with him an infectious optimism about human life and man’s capacity for goodness (along with a sober assessment of the evils of our day). He showed us what we can become by keeping God at the center of our lives, and proved that real men love their Mother. In Poland, he showed the Soviet Union that the power of the Holy Spirit, alive in the hearts of his countrymen, could defeat one of the largest military forces in the world. He taught us how to show mercy, to sanctity our suffering and always to persevere, trusting in the love of the Holy Trinity.
3. Founder of World Youth Day (WYD). Since 1985 tens of millions of young people, meeting every two to three years in different countries of the world (and in Rome in between), have gathered to pray, to learn and to be inspired by John Paul II, who presided over nine international WYDs, before Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis began presiding over these world-shaking events.
In 2002 in Toronto, the last international WYD over which John Paul II presided, he told the crowd of nearly one million present for a vigil:
Through WYDs, and thanks to his charismatic personality and teaching, John Paul inspired perhaps thousands of young men to become “JPII priests,” whose lives are marked by zeal for the faith, their priesthood and souls. Young lay men and women, inspired by these encounters with truth and holiness, took seriously their responsibility to learn and communicate the treasures of our faith (which all too few had learned from parents and catechists). They embraced even the “hard teachings” on sexual morality and pro-life issues, and founded or assumed leadership over countless apostolates and ministries. They’ve brought vigor and joy to many parishes and made it “cool” to be counter-culturally Catholic.
2. Culture Warrior and Apostle of Divine Mercy. John Paul coined the term and boldly confronted “the culture of death.” He understood its roots in atheistic communism and western secularism: “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life (Evangelium Vitae[The Gospel of Life], 21; emphasis in original). Man’s “freedom” then becomes individualistic, losing its “inherently relational dimension” and “its essential link with the truth” (Evangelium Vitae, 19); moral relativism and the assertion of power over others’ lives result. He wove all of Catholic teaching on many of the most urgent questions of our day—contraception, abortion, reproductive technologies, assisted suicide and euthanasia, the complementarity of male and female, the feminine genius, the meaning of human sexuality, of marriage and family, solidarity with others—into a coherent whole, all related to the dignity of the human person, a creature made in God’s image who finds meaning in life through giving and receiving love. He insisted that a civilization of love could defeat the culture of death and urged us to go about building such a civilization.
Because every one of us has abused the freedom God gave us, because we’ve put ourselves ahead of others, we all are in need of God’s mercy. More than any pope before him, Pope John Paul II could be called the Pope of Divine Mercy. His second encyclical, following The Redeemer of Man (1979) wasDives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy; 1980). In it, John Paul traces God’s repeated demonstrations of his merciful love throughout salvation history, culminating in Jesus mission to show us the merciful face of the Father, which is also the mission of his Church. In raising Faustina Kowalska to sainthood and establishing Divine Mercy Sunday, John Paul emphasized the link between God’s mercy, human dignity and our wretched condition:
the sentiment of severe justice and, allowing Himself to be moved by the wretchedness of
His creatures, spurs Himself to the total gift of self, in the Son’s cross …?
Who can say that he is free from sin and does not need God’s mercy? As people of this
restless time of ours, wavering between the emptiness of self-exaltation and the humiliation
of despair, we have a greater need than ever for a regenerating experience of mercy (Regina Caeli
message, April 10, 1994)
1. Teacher. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles remarked that “more than any other single individual he has succeeded in comprehensively restating the contours of Catholic faith in the light of Vatican II and in relation to post-Conciliar developments in the Church and in the world.”
The project of preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) is only one of his many contributions to the restatement of the faith. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote fourteen Encyclicals, fifteen Apostolic Exhortations, eleven Apostolic Constitutions and forty-five Apostolic Letters. His Wednesday audiences—such as those which set forth the groundbreaking "theology of the body"—his Regina Caeli and Angelus addresses, his homilies and statements, are treasures of wisdom and insight, always presented in language that is clear, lofty and often prophetic.
In The Gospel of Life, for example, John Paul affirms that abortion is the murder of a human being and illustrates its moral gravity in this passage:
Yet, he is quick to point out that the mother’s decision is "often tragic and painful," sometimes made "out of a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family" (58) and notes that the father of the child is often to blame through directly pressuring the mother or abandoning her (59). And he does not leave these mothers without hope. In a later passage, John Paul offers "a special word to women who have had an abortion," acknowledging how "painful and even shattering" the decision may have been and that "the wound in your heart may not yet have healed" (99). He urges them:
He speaks with the same poignancy and tenderness for those thought to be at the end of life as well, including patients diagnosed as being in a "persistent vegetative state":
A great part of Pope Saint John Paul II’s legacy is in his writings. We can honor his memory by reading them, again and again, and then putting them into practice as we "become better and more committed Christian witnesses."
Susan Wills is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English-language edition.