Saint John Paul II

A banner depicting Blessed John Paul II hangs from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The banner was hung the morning of April 25 in advance of the canonization of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul. At left is a statue of St. Peter. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (April 25, 2014)

The Church today canonizes two holy men of our age, Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.  Each gave profound witness to the Gospel, and this moment of grace provides an opportunity to express our appreciation for their lives, love and guidance.  A couple of days ago on this blog we reflected on the life and pontificate of John XXIII, and here I would like to comment on the gift of John Paul II.

The magisterium of Saint John Paul covered almost every aspect of human experience and the Church.  He wrote and spoke about the divine mercy of Jesus, the unconditional love of our heavenly Father, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the affection of our Blessed Mother Mary.  He taught us about the gift of the Eucharist, the truth and vocation of the human person, the beauty of a moral life, the blessing of marriage and family, the priesthood, social justice, the dignity of every human life, the New Evangelization and more.  Those teachings alone have earned him the title “John Paul the Great.”

Here, however, I would like to offer some personal reflections on this saint who touched my life in many ways.  My earliest encounter with him was before he was elected Pope, when I was secretary to Cardinal John Wright, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, of which Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was a member.  He enjoyed practicing his English and often he would stop to chat with me in the office.

It was an exciting day when I saw him walk out onto the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica as Pope.  There were multiple occasions to visit and pray with him in the following years and, in 1986, he ordained me as a bishop.  Many years later, I would concelebrate with him to mark the 25th anniversary of his pontificate.  We all knew his health was failing and I wanted one more chance to celebrate Mass with this holy man.

Another cherished encounter with Pope John Paul was when I led a contingent to Rome for a special concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which brought together leaders from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths.  I will recall this moment of harmony among people this coming May 5, 2014, when our local Church will co-host a concert at Constitution Hall entitled “Peace through Music ‘In Our Age,’” under the leadership of Sir Gilbert Levine, “the Pope’s Maestro.”  The world-class Kraków Philharmonic Choir, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the Washington Choral Arts Chorus will perform at this event, which will be televised on PBS.

In his more than 26 years as Pope, people felt they knew John Paul personally as he traveled to more than 130 countries, sharing Christ’s love and hope.  When he made his first visit to the United States in 1979, the cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with his picture and the words “John Paul, Superstar.”  Practically everywhere he went, people chanted “JP2, we love you.”  With his spiritual leadership and witness of hope, he played a key role in in the liberation of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.  When he died, leaders from nearly every country in the world came to his funeral, together with millions of pilgrims.

Inside the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica are inscribed the words “Tu es Petrus (You are Peter),” which is what Jesus said to the first pope.  The name “Peter” means “rock,” and throughout his pontificate, Saint John Paul was a rock of faith.  When he was elected pontiff in 1978, our culture had been increasingly secularized and many had become disenchanted with the Church.  But he brought a confidence and boldness that revitalized countless people throughout the world. They saw in him an unmitigated proclamation of the faith and a greatness of heart.  His was a voice of proclamation not condemnation, not of denunciation but of welcome.

The Holy Father provided a sublime example of priesthood in his ministry, inspiring countless vocations.  What a great joy to change the sign outside of our archdiocesan seminary to Saint John Paul II Seminary!

“Do not be afraid to welcome Christ,” Saint John Paul said at his papal installation Mass. “Open wide the doors for Christ.”  His message throughout his papacy, as well as his palpable sanctity, touched something very deep in those who encountered him – the realization we are made for something more than ourselves, we are created to have a relationship forever with God.