Be Not Afraid! With these words, Karol Wojtyla began his pontificate as Pope John Paul II. And no one embodied these words more than he did.
Today, as we celebrate John Paul’s beatification, we can look back on his papacy and honor the confident, fearless way that he led the church for twenty-six years. Nothing—not even an assassin’s bullet—could keep John Paul from preaching Christ to the world. Nothing—not even an aging body and persistent illness—could keep him from devoting all his energies to building up the church.
Here are five reflections on John Paul’s life and teachings. We hope they inspire you to imitate the Holy Father in your own life of faith. May his words, his example, and his intercession bring us all closer to Jesus. May he continue to inspire all of us to become master builders in the kingdom of God!
An Apostle of Mercy
When Pope John Paul II wrote his apostolic exhortation "On Reconciliation and Penance", he selected the parable of the prodigal son to describe the love and mercy that God has for us.
“This prodigal son is man—every human being,” he wrote. We have all left our heavenly Father’s house and tried to strike out on our own. And we all need to come back to our Father and ask him to forgive us. At the same time, John Paul taught: “Every human being is also this elder brother.” We all need to learn how to forgive each other and welcome back those who have sinned against us. And why should we repent? Because God is always waiting for us: “The most striking element of the parable is the father’s festive and loving welcome of the returning son: It is a sign of the mercy of God, who is always willing to forgive” (Reconciliation and Penance, 5, 6).
Pope John Paul II was never afraid to say that we are all sinners and that our sin divides us from God and from each other. He also was insistent in speaking about sin in a broader context, pointing to economic and political structures in the world that have exploited the poor and needy.
In all of this, the Holy Father never sought to discourage or demoralize people. Rather, he urged us to bring our sins to the Lord so that we could be set free. He wanted us to know the grace available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that we could be changed—and so that we could change our environment.
But John Paul didn’t just talk about reconciliation; he lived it. A champion of ecumenism, he worked tirelessly to mend divisions between the churches. He sought a closer relationship with the Jewish people. He even publicly repented for past sins committed in the name of the church. And who can forget the day when he met with and forgave the man who tried to assassinate him? May we all follow his example and become instruments of God’s mercy!
“Lord, teach me to be merciful as you are merciful.”
Honoring the Human Family
If there’s one thing that all observers agree about Pope John Paul II, it is the ease with which he could relate to people from all walks of life. He was comfortable with people, no matter the setting. Whether he was greeting a world leader in the marble halls of the Vatican or sitting down for a brief meal with a family outside their shack in Nigeria, the pope seemed comfortable as if he was in his own environment.
What attracted John Paul to so many different people? While his natural gifts and personality were clearly a factor, there is one word that gives us an even deeper insight: solidarity. For John Paul, everything centered on the belief that we are all connected to each other as children of God and that we all bear responsibility for one another.
Solidarity, according to John Paul, calls us in a special way to look after the needs of the weak and vulnerable among us—the poor, the elderly, the unborn, the infirm, and the marginalized. In a world that tends to favor the strong and the wealthy, John Paul told us: “God has imprinted his own image and likeness on human beings, conferring upon them an incomparable dignity. . . . In effect, beyond the rights which one acquires by one’s own work, there exist rights which do not correspond to any work he performs, but which flow from one’s essential dignity as a person.” (Centesiumus Annus, 11)
It was this emphasis on solidarity and our common dignity that compelled John Paul to speak out against abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and human trafficking. It’s also why he devoted himself to promoting the family—the place where we discover our dignity and where we first learn how to love each other and treat other people with honor and respect. He knew that if we could learn to live in love in our own families, we would be more open to treating everyone as part of the larger human family that God has called us to be.
“Jesus, give us a heart of compassion and solidarity. May we all become one family in you!”
Put Out Into the Deep
How did John Paul II approach evangelization? First, he recognized that it isn’t a task for a select few: “Missionary activity is a matter for all Christians,” he wrote in his encyclical The Mission of the Redeemer. And neither is it just one aspect of our Christian lives—one among many equal parts. Rather, evangelization is “the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity.”
For John Paul, evangelization also meant getting out of one’s comfort zone. Using the words of Jesus to Peter, the Holy Father called all of us to “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).
And what an example he left us to follow! Throughout his pontificate, even as age and illness slowed him down, John Paul couldn’t stay still. Like St. Paul before him, John Paul felt compelled by the love of Christ—compelled to keep traveling to new lands so that he could bring the gospel to as many people as possible. And so he became the most well-traveled pope in history, logging more than 700,000 miles and visiting 129 countries. He was personally seen by more people than any other historical figure, and for the 1995 World Youth Day in Manila, it is estimated that he drew one of the largest crowds ever assembled—five million!
For all his “rock star” status, though, Pope John Paul II insisted that we can all make Christ present to the people around us. If we will “put out into the deep” in our own prayer lives and draw closer to Jesus, he will draw us out into the world. Just as he taught John Paul, the Holy Spirit can teach us how to introduce people to Christ—to offer them “a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” There is no telling what the Lord will accomplish through us when we get out of the boat and take that next step toward him!
“Lord, may your presence ignite a spark within me that spreads to everyone I meet.”
A Son Devoted to his Mother
Totus Tuus—“Totally Yours.” When Pope John Paul II took this phrase as his apostolic motto, he was doing more than honoring Mary. He was revealing a personal conviction that had guided him all his life. He took as the main symbol on his coat of arms a Marian cross—the letter “M” in the lower right quadrant to recall Mary at the foot of the cross. He also commissioned the only Marian image in all of St. Peter’s Square—the mosaic icon “Mother of the Church,” which looks down on the statues of saints atop the colonnade.
Early in his pontificate, John Paul found another personal link to Mary: It was on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, that the pope was shot in an assassination attempt. He attributed his survival to the Blessed Mother, whose “unseen hand” he believed guided the bullet that came within millimeters of taking his life. In gratitude, John Paul made a pilgrimage to Fatima one year after being shot.
We might be tempted to dismiss this kind of devotion as the sentimental piety of a devout man whose mother died when he was only nine years old. But there was much more to John Paul’s love for the Blessed Mother than simple sentiment. For Pope John Paul II, Mary played an active, vital role in God’s plan of salvation.
In his encyclical Mother of the Redeemer, John Paul spoke of Mary as the ideal disciple of the Lord because of her wholehearted acceptance of God’s will. Her choice to become the mother of God opened the door for all the blessings that God wanted to give his people. Mary remains for all time a model for the church and the prime example of discipleship: prayerfully waiting, actively following, and faithfully persevering.
Through his writings and his witness, John Paul continues to call us to take Mary as our mother. He calls us to follow her example of faith and love, confident in the belief that Jesus can meet our every need.
“Mary, by your intercession, help us to follow your example and bring glory to your son.#8221;
Gazing on the Face of Christ
Man achieves the fullness of prayer . . . when he lets God be most fully present in prayer” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope). Pope John Paul II loved to talk about prayer. Whether it happened through the rosary, Scripture meditation, eucharistic adoration, or the Mass, he wanted everyone to learn how to gaze on the face of Jesus and absorb his love.
Everything John Paul did was saturated with prayer. When he awoke from surgery after the 1981 assassination attempt, he asked: “Have we prayed Compline yet?” Reflecting on his priesthood, he marveled: “For over half a century, every day my eyes have gazed in recollection upon the host and the chalice.”
John Paul prayed all the time. Friends who hiked with him would sometimes see his lips move or hear a snatch of song. Wherever the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, it drew him like a magnet. Once there, kneeling or stretched out on the floor, he could lose track of time. One evening, his press secretary arrived early for 7:30 dinner and found the pope alone in his chapel, so he also knelt down. Not until 8:00 did the Holy Father look up and say: “Oh, I didn’t know you were here!”
When he was younger, John Paul focused on thanksgiving, not wanting to bother God with requests. Later he admitted: “Today I ask very much.” He prayed about world events, but he also prayed for individuals: for a man to find work, for a woman to recover her faith. He kept slips of paper with various prayer requests in his kneeler and referred to them often.
John Paul died as he had lived— in prayer. On April 2, 2005, with friends gathered around his bed, he whispered: “Let me go to the Father’s house.” Then, just after Mass, he lifted his hand to bless the pilgrims gathered in the square below. He breathed a final “Amen,” and slipped permanently into the Father’s presence.
“Jesus, teach me to pray. I long to gaze on your face!”