In April of 2005, cardinals from around the world flew to Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, who had died on April 2. As they arrived, they found the pontiff’s body lying in state inside St. Peter’s Basilica—something completely expected. They also found major news networks from around the world carrying twenty-four-hour live coverage of the events for several days. Again, this was no surprise.
The real surprise came when they arrived at Vatican City to find more than five million people lined up to view John Paul’s body. The line stretched for many blocks around the Vatican. If you just arrived at the back of the line, you faced a twenty-five-hour wait. But that didn’t keep the people away. Millions came, many of them young people, and waited patiently for that brief moment when they could have one last glimpse of the man who had moved them so deeply.
Another surprise was the way many Roman parishes organized food, water, sanitation facilities, and even confessions and spiritual counseling for the mourners in line. It was a beautiful display of solidarity and ministry.
What kind of person could inspire five million people to walk, drive, or fly from around the world to wait in that long line? A saint, that’s who. So let’s look at the man and the enormous influence he has had in the Church and the world—the man who constantly urged us, “Be not afraid.”
Compassion and Courage. First and foremost, Pope John Paul II was a man without fear. But his courage was not combative or arrogant. No, it was a courage born of compassion—a compassion that moved him to affirm the freedom and dignity of the whole human person. This is why he spoke up for pro-life issues. It’s why he insisted on economic policies that helped the poor. It’s why he urged politicians to pursue peace. And it’s why he worked so hard to help bring an end to Soviet Communism.
Karol Wojtyla settled on this path of courageous compassion at a rather young age. He knew from personal experience what happens when freedom is denied and dignity is crushed. Living in Poland, first under Nazi occupation and then under Communist oppression, he witnessed the disaster that people suffer when they are enslaved to selfishness, greed, and loss of faith. The suffering that he saw filled his heart with compassion, even as it gave him the courage to commit himself to the truth of the gospel, regardless of the personal cost.
To Change Human Hearts. As a young seminarian and priest in Krakov, Karol Wojtyla learned that Christians needed to become bold and strong in the face of these deep threats. The Church needed to act in a way that changed human hearts, not just political powers. If the world was to have a better future, the Church had to propose—and never impose—a real and practical answer to the challenges of the day. What’s more, Fr. Wojtyla knew where the answer must come from: a profound encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. All of these convictions, forged early in his life, remained with him as he became a bishop, then a cardinal, and finally, pope.
Fortunately, John Paul had very powerful gifts for the calling God had for him. He had an insatiable desire to learn and understand both the world around him and the Spirit who lived within him. He was fluent in as many as eleven languages. He earned two doctorates: one in Scholasticism, the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and the other in Existentialism, one of the most important philosophies of the twentieth century. He enjoyed reading literature and wrote his own poems and plays. Such a broad perspective enabled him to draw from many traditions and disciplines as he sought to show the world who Jesus Christ is and why we need to come to know him.
Answers for the World. John Paul had powerful answers to the problems of our world today, answers that haven’t really changed since our first parents allowed pride and selfishness to draw them into sin.
First, he taught us that we are free, but that we must exercise our freedom according to our dignity as children of God.
Second, he taught us to live a life of love—not a sentimental love but a love that is responsible and committed to the truth.
Finally, he taught us to believe with all our hearts and to place our faith in the God who has revealed himself to us in Christ.
These lessons are not just nice ideas for people to think about. They comprise the very essence of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a child of God. So let’s take a brief look at each one.
Freedom and Dignity.
Our freedom to make choices affirms our humanity in the deepest way possible. No one can ever take away our freedom. Without freedom, there is no love. And love for God, for other people, and for ourselves is the fullest expression of our human dignity.
John Paul knew that Communism destroyed freedom and dignity, but he also saw that unchecked Capitalism could do the same thing, especially if people were considered to have value only if they were “useful” in some marketable way. That’s why he spoke so often about protecting the freedom and dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death.
Love and Responsibility.
This was actually the title of John Paul’s first book. In it, he affirmed that it is our responsibility to seek out the truth of things and then respond to these truths in love. He believed that a very meaningful moment in our lives happens when we face a decision about something important. It’s at this moment that we must freely commit ourselves to a course of action that is faithful to the truths that God has revealed—and then accept the consequences of our decision.
For Pope John Paul II, Catholicism was not for spectators but for those who boldly live the faith they profess! It’s also from this conviction that he called the Church to recognize and repent for those times in history when Christians failed to live up to the call of Jesus to love and respect all people—especially our elder brothers and sisters in faith, the Jewish people.
Reason and Faith.
Pope John Paul II believed that honest and rational people can approach the truths of God by use of their own reason. He appealed to our minds and goodwill with penetrating encyclicals such as The Splendor of Truth and Faith and Reason. Reason is important, he wrote, because “blind obedience gives no glory to God.” In fact, our faith encourages reasoned analysis. But reason without personal encounter is not enough. And so he called for a New Evangelization. In this realm, John Paul affirmed the power of each person to make a positive, personal, and practical difference. He taught us to speak intelligently about our faith but also to give living witness to it so that we could touch people’s hearts and minds together.
John Paul did this himself rather dramatically by speaking to people in more than one hundred countries around the world. It was common for more than a million people to attend his Masses. In fact, more people have seen Pope John Paul II in person than any other person in all of human history. And when they saw him, they saw a man whose faith was alive, personal, and well thought out. They saw a saint.
While he delivered his message of freedom, dignity, and responsibility to the world in homilies, letters, and encyclicals, Pope John Paul II also elevated to sainthood hundreds of people who were living examples of the message he preached. By reasoned discourse and the example of heroic persons, he delivered a message of the power of the human person who is free, responsible, compassionate, courageous, and like himself, a person who lived without fear.
A Mentor for All of Us. Now we know why five million people from around the world chose to stand in line for hours on end just so that they could walk by this amazing person for the last time. It’s also why I still consider Pope John Paul II as a personal mentor. He has taught me so much about what it means to be a real human being—to live in the freedom and dignity of a person made in the image of God.
Fr. Dave Heney is pastor of St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks, California.