The late pope had a practical plan for the Church
Commentators often miss what made John Paul a world-changing genius: He did what many consider impossible —he changed the daily life of the billion-plus Catholics he led and reset the trajectory of the Church.
He did this by creating “facts”: Concrete practices which made his wishes into realities. Some quick examples:
•He didn’t just exhort the youth to rediscover their faith — he started World Youth Days and made it happen.
•He didn’t just ask Catholic institutions to follow the magisterium — he promulgated a new Universal Catechism, making it difficult not to.
•He didn’t just say we are all integral parts of the Church — he traveled worldwide to show it.
•He didn’t just ask us to rediscover Christ — he rebranded the Year 2000 as a Jubilee Year devoted to Jesus.
Nothing shows this leadership style more clearly than his last five years of life. In 2001, he summed up the Great Jubilee in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), and then “earnestly exhorted” the Church to follow his “program” for “starting afresh in Christ.”
True to form, he didn’t just ask for a program. The aging, ailing pope then tirelessly turned his requests into “facts.” Here are four wishes that he spent his last years pursuing in his inimitable way.
First, the Pope asked the Church to promote the Sunday Eucharist.
John Paul’s highest priority for the Church was “The Sunday Eucharist.” Not daily Mass, not First Fridays, not Eucharistic adoration. As beautiful and beneficial as each of those are, John Paul saw the Sunday Mass as the key.
St. John Paul knew that the act of committing to Sunday Mass is transformative. When a family decides to go to Sunday Mass every week, God becomes their center and identity: their one non-negotiable appointment, their weekly connection to their neighbors. For a Sunday Mass family, God is the anchor and the tie that binds.
John Paul didn’t just ask for this, he spent the next five years creating “facts” to make it so. He declared a Year of the Eucharist, wrote an encyclical, and, for English speakers, oversaw a process that reformed the Roman Missal and re-translated the Mass, attracting Catholics with novelty and authenticity, both at once.
His second priority: Confession.
Next, John Paul called for bishops to have the “courage, confidence and creativity” to re-establish the sacrament of reconciliation in their dioceses.
When he spoke of the crisis in the Church in 2001, he meant the abandonment by many Catholics of confession, and saw it as the root of a crisis of the sense of sin in the world. In a 2002 Holy Thursday letter to priests, he connected this with the priest scandals: If a priest is willing to offer the Eucharist to his flock without offering confession, he has become desensitized to mortal sin and that way lies grave danger.
In his 2003 Eucharistic encyclical, the Pope used formal language to demand that the Church rule still applies, that “in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin.”
He followed up his plea, again, with a “fact.” Easter Sunday II is the Sunday in which the Gospel recounts the story of the Institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In 2001 the Pope made that day Divine Mercy Sunday, carrying an indulgence for those observe it and confess. God and the Church ratified his decision: He died on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2005, was beatified on that day in 2011 and then canonized on that day in 2014.
John Paul’s third wish was for more prayer.
In the section of the letter about the primacy of grace, St. John Paul said, “As this millennium begins, allow the Successor of Peter to invite the whole Church [to] a renewed commitment to prayer.”