I am thinking today of our former Holy Father on his memorial. He was an inspiration to me as I converted. Earlier I described my conversion story, but what I didn’t mention then was that during my “searching” period in Italy, I actually saw Pope John Paul II. I was on one of my weekend jaunts to Rome, when I happened upon a very large crowd in St. Peter’s Square. After a bit I figured out that the Pope was speaking right there in the square! I couldn’t get close – he was barely a white speck to me – but he was a discernable white speck, even in the 35mm photograph I took and still have today.
To many in the world, I fear that John Paul II was just another historical figure, akin to a politician, one of those characters of the cold war who are only interesting because of the times they lived in. I fear they think the Church is canonizing him just because he was Pope, and that maybe they canonize anybody that was Pope. He was so much more.
He was a teacher. His books are marvelously accessible, and he broke such important theological ground, both in his work as a bishop and cardinal, particularly with respect to Vatican II, and as the Holy Father. He gave us a much more profound understanding of human sexuality, of our roles as male and female, and especially of the family.
He was a hero. This is a man who became a priest durin the Nazi occupation of Poland, a bishop during the communist regime. He risked his life on a daily basis to bring the faith to others. And once he had the world stage, he made the boldest statement of all. He could have stayed safely in the Vatican, out of controversy and out of harms way. But he went to Poland – almost forced himself there against the wishes of the communists. And he took them to task on their own turf. He gave the people of Poland – and the people of all Eastern Europe – a voice, and he was one of the great catalysts for the miraculous changes that seemed to take place overnight.
He was a Saint, no doubt about it. He met with and forgave the man who tried, and almost succeeded, to kill him. He suffered at the end of his life, in a very public way, showing the world that old age, that the slow decay of disease cannot and does not take away an ounce of a person’s humanity or value, and he stayed at his post until the most painful end.
I am so lucky to have lived during the lifetime of such a man. If only some fraction of his holiness might rub off on me I would be assured of finding my way to the feet of our Lord when my time comes.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!