(In light of the Beatification of Pope John Paul II this weekend in Rome, it seems appropriate to revisit his ministry and his enormous contributions to the Church and the world. The following is a slightly revised and updated version of a column that previously appeared in “The Catholic Exponent,” of the Diocese of Youngstown.)
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Mt 16:18) With those few words, following upon St. Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus gave form and structure to the Church and placed St. Peter as its head. St. Peter eventually traveled to Rome taking his primacy with him and from that time on, the Bishop of Rome has been the visible head of the Church on earth.
Throughout the centuries the papacy has been filled with thoroughly human leaders. Most of the popes have been holy men, men in love with Christ and His people, men of great learning and achievement. Some popes have not lived up to the dignity of their office. There’s no hesitation in saying, however, that Pope John Paul II was one of the great popes in the history of the Church and one of the most significant world leaders of the twentieth century.
Even secular sources confirm his impact, the historical dimensions of this man. One biography, His Holiness, written by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, makes this point: “When John Paul II took control of the Church, its influence and power in the world were widely believed to be declining. But Wojtyla saw himself as a man called upon by destiny, by God, to change the face of the Church and the world.”
When Time Magazine chose John Paul as the “Man of the Year,” it wrote: “People who see him do not forget him. His appearances generate electricity unmatched by anyone else on earth.”
The testimonies about John Paul are legion, but there is no doubt that this Pope changed the history of the Church and the world as few others before him.
As Catholics, however, we see the Pope not simply as a great world leader but also as an integral part of our Faith. Pope John Paul was the Successor of Peter, the Supreme Pastor, the Vicar of Christ, and most poignantly, our Holy Father.
John Paul was a pilgrim and pastor to the world, a good shepherd who traveled the world bringing the Gospel of Christ and the blessings of the Church to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His celebrations of World Youth Days inspired millions of young people who found in him a beacon of truth and a pillar of integrity.
John Paul was a prophet whose voice, more than any other of his time, spoke consistently and passionately about human rights, human life and social justice.
John Paul was an effective diplomat, taking his place on the political stage of the world, standing for peace and freedom and contributing to the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, not through violent revolution, but through peaceful evolution.
John Paul was a world class philosopher and theologian, a brilliant teacher whose words will be read a thousand years from now alongside the words of Augustine, Aquinas and Teresa of Avila.
John Paul was a source of unity within the Church and with the Church, insisting rightly on discipline for members of the Church and pleading for unity with other Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, as a necessary manifestation of the will of Christ.
Quite a “curriculum vitae” for the late Pope. But what did the Pope think of himself and his ministry? In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he wrote: “What is important originates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. What is important is that which comes from the Holy Spirit . . . From this perspective, the expression ‘Vicar of Christ’ assumes its true meaning. More than dignity, it alludes to service. It emphasizes the duties of the Pope in the Church, his Petrine ministry, carried out for the good of the Church and the faithful.”
From this personal reflection we see that the Pope claimed little credit for himself but held in great esteem the office he fulfilled. It is that understanding of the responsibilities and impact of his office that led John Paul to a total act of self-giving in his life and ministry, fulfilled even in his heroic illness and death.
I first met Pope John Paul in November 1992 in the days immediately after my nomination as bishop. While visiting Rome on that occasion I had the opportunity of concelebrating Mass with the Holy Father in his private chapel. After the Eucharist, the Pope entered the waiting room to greet his visitors, including me. To my everlasting astonishment, the Holy Father took a bishop’s pectoral cross and placed it over my head and around my neck, obviously pleased to greet this new, very young bishop. At that time I knew I had been touched by a holy man; it was an encounter I will never forget.
In speaking of Pope John Paul’s Beatification, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for Saints Causes, said that the Pope is receiving this distinction not because of his office or his impact on history, but because of his personal holiness; because he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. That example of personal holiness should inspire us all. Blessed Pope John Paul II – pray for us!