He was a spiritual leader who drew thousands of people closer to God, and he still does so today.
Those of us who are old enough may recall where we were when we heard that John Paul II had passed away (April 2, 2005) — I was watching college basketball with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I didn’t yet know much about this man, but there was a feeling that something special was now gone.
Over the last few years I’ve learned more about JPII, what he faced in his youth, and how it shaped him as an adult. Born Karol Wojtyla, JPII lost his mother, then his brother, then his father, and endured great personal suffering under communism in Poland. He became a priest in secret, and held clandestine youth group meetings to keep the faith alive in the youth of Poland. He understood well not only the importance of young people, but their hunger for truth and purpose, even when the world around them was discouraging it. He later played a pivotal role in the fall of communism in Europe.
I have also come to love the deep understanding JPII had of the beauty of the human body and its purpose. Too often our contemporary culture tells us we are not enough, our bodies are not enough. JPII saw things differently: we were made through love and for love. Our bodies are expressions of that love to be honored, and whose dignity should be upheld in all things. JPII had an artistic side — he was a playwright, among other things — and his understanding of the human condition hits home for me.
At the end of his life, Parkinson’s disease limited JPII’s ability to move and even speak. Still, he remained a spiritual leader that drew thousands of people closer to God by his example.
Reading his beloved Gospel of John or praying the Stations of the Cross — as JPII did every Friday, even up to the last days of his life — are great places to start honoring this contemporary saint. With his love of exploration and commitment to youth and families in mind, here are some other, less conventional ways to honor John Paul the Great today.
Wake up and jam out to the words of the man himself in this autotune rendition of “Dynamite.” I dare you to try to listen to this song just once. It’s impossibly catchy and will have you smiling all day. Social media is sure to be populated with illustrated quotes and memes today, but how much better to have JPII in your ear, with the truth that as much as we love him, “Perhaps I love you more”? Celebrate and share what a gift it is to have recordings that continue to inspire and encourage.
JPII was known for his love of the outdoors. Much of his ministry as a young priest involved kayak trips and other adventures that embraced nature. Make some time this afternoon for a walk around a nearby park or even just around your neighborhood. As you feel the fresh air fill your lungs, remember the God who breathed life into you and give thanks for your precious, irreplaceable life and the body you live in.
Pierogi, anyone? If cooking’s your thing, start from scratch and get creative with your fillings. Because the process is time-consuming, consider making a large batch and freezing partially cooked pierogi for another night. If you don’t have that kind of time, check your supermarket’s frozen food aisle for a variety of flavors you can have on the table in minutes. If you can find it (or you’re bold enough to make it), close the meal with the Polish cream cake that was JPII’s favorite — a cousin of the French napoléon, now lovingly known as “Kremówka papieska,” or “papal cream cake.”
Be not afraid
Perhaps the best thing we can do to honor JPII is to take his words to heart and put them into action. Time and again, JPII encouraged us to “Be not afraid.” What are you afraid of? What’s holding you back from living the Gospel out today? Is it a fear of what others may think or a concern that you’re not worthy? Play that autotune again and listen closely: “If the Son frees you, you’ll be free indeed. He’s the way the truth and the life indeed.” What is there to be afraid of now?
At its heart, any celebration of John Paul II is really a celebration of Christ’s tremendous love for every one of us. As his life and legacy attest, that love will truly set us free.