Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather April 27 in St. Peter’s Square to celebrate the canonization of Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council, and with him the “son” of the council who left an indelible mark on our age, Pope John Paul II.
It was not so long ago when, in April 2005 as John Paul II lay dying, thousands of young people gathered in the same place in prayerful vigil a testimony of love for the pope whose love they had experienced. Millions flocked to his funeral Mass April 8, giving thanks to God for the gift of this man. That day in Rome, the crowds shouted so loudly that they could be heard atop Janiculum Hill: “Il Grande!” (“The Great!”) and “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”). This scene had not been repeated since the funeral of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the year 604.
On the feast of Divine Mercy the feast that John Paul II himself gave to the Church that spontaneous acclamation will become reality. The Polish pope who grew up amid some of the worst horrors of the 20th century will be publically declared a gift of God’s mercy to our time.
As the crowds again fill St. Peter’s Square, overflowing into its side streets and filling the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue leading to the Tiber River, we might take a moment to remember what John Paul II gave to the Church and the world. One of the longest and richest teaching pontificates, his 26 years as pope has already borne abundant fruit. But such fruit only endures if, like Mary, the Christian faithful remember the gifts of God, pondering them in our hearts (cf. Luke 2:19).
Those old enough will recall the day Karol Wojtyła first emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s as a joyful burst of new energy, his arms outstretched to embrace the world. They will remember the stirring cry he uttered during his inaugural Mass: “Be not afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” Those of any age who listened to the homilies or read the works of this fearless pastor and theologian will recognize that he was like the wise steward of Scripture, who drew new insights for the Church and the world out of the storehouses of the Church’s Tradition (cf. Mt 13:52).
A distillation of John Paul II’s key theological developments might appear somewhat abstract until we remember that for John Paul II, Christian thinking was inseparable from lived Christian faith. This profoundly pastoral philosopher and theologian called for a radical renewal of faith that would bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ in our age. He called for witnesses whose worship, words and very existence would radiate the Gospel to a world profoundly in need. And he was what he preached.
Any attempt to list the new saint’s central insights will necessarily be incomplete. With Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, we are still discovering what God gave to his Church in “John Paul the Great.” Nonetheless, we can recognize some of the treasure that this great teacher and shepherd presented to the Church and the world.
1. He re-centered the Church on “Christ, the Redeemer of man,” and so showed the way to an “adequate anthropology.”
Like his life, all of John Paul II’s key developments of the Church’s thought were anchored in the simplest and oldest Christian confession of faith. A decidedly modern, resounding affirmation of this ancient faith begins his first encyclical: “Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of man, is the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor Hominis, 1). The opening paragraph of Redemptor Hominis deliberately evokes the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, bluntly contradicting Marxism’s man-made, self-destructive salvation through violent revolution. Society is healed neither through socialism nor through the “market,” both of which subordinate the good of the person to the functions of the societal mechanism. It is healed through the only-begotten Son of God who was born of Mary two millennia ago to become our companion on life’s path and to show us the love of the Father (cf. John Paul II, “Prayer for the Great Jubilee”).
John Paul II had firsthand experience of destructive ideologies that did not understand the human person. He was unshakably convinced that “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…. Christ … by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 22).
2. He gave us a theology of human love.
In his first encyclical, John Paul II wrote that man “remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love” (Redemptor Hominis, 10). In the light of the incarnate Word, who reveals the Father’s love and bestows the Spirit on us, we begin to understand why: God himself is infinite communion, perfect self-giving, shared joy. Since man is created in the image of this God, he “cannot ‘fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.’ This … is the magnificent paradox of human existence” (John Paul II, Letter to Families, 11; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 24).
As a young priest working with married couples, the future pope learned to “love human love” (cf. Crossing the Threshold of Hope , p. 123). Throughout his pontificate, he boldly developed a theology of human love in many of his teachings. He taught that the human body has a “nuptial meaning.” In our sexual difference (i.e., existing only as men or as women who together image God), we can already glimpse the signs of the fundamental human vocation to love.
3. He articulated the “saving mission of the family.”
John Paul II’s theology of human love reached its culmination in a development of a theology of marriage and the family so rich that it will take generations to fully unfold in the life of the Church. The faithful and fruitful communion of man and woman shows forth in the world the faithful and fruitful communion that is in God. And that is not all. The family has a mission so vital that with it, humanity stands or falls.
Simply by becoming what it is that is, a “community of life and love” the family is a “saved and a saving community” at the heart of the Church’s mission. “The family,” John Paul II wrote, “has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church his bride…. Family, become what you are!” (Familiaris Consortio, 17; cf. 70).
4. He fearlessly defended the dignity of the human person.
The family is the place where the human person is meant to be received in love, no matter what his abilities or disabilities, his age or “productivity.” Thus John Paul II, the pope of the family, was also a prophetic voice proclaiming the inviolable dignity of every human life: born or unborn, rich or poor, healthy or sick, oppressed or free. He wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel” (2).
This Gospel impelled John Paul II to speak out especially on behalf of the most vulnerable: the unborn and the elderly. But it also led him to challenge unjust economic practices, remind workers of their dignity, rebuke dictators and cry out for peace, convinced that “the answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the 20th century is the common effort to build the civilization of love” (Address to the United Nations, 1995).
5. In his suffering, he pointed us to the mercy of God.
Near the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II wrote an encyclical on God the Father titled Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). In a sense, this title could be placed over his entire life and pontificate, especially his years-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease and his death in 2005. This pope, who had been so great a speaker, finally taught us best with his silence. In the Church that lives from the sacrifice of her Lord, John Paul II became a suffering and, finally, a mute witness of Christ’s love “to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1).
The pope gave Divine Mercy the last word in his life. After entrusting everyone and everything into the hands of the Virgin Mary, he wrote in his will and testament, “I … ask for prayers, so that God’s Mercy may prove greater than my own weakness and unworthiness: ‘For with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption (Ps 130:7).’”
If we recall nothing else as we watch the enormous crowd fill St. Peter’s Square on April 27 just as it did at John Paul II’s unforgettable funeral Mass, only now without a trace of sadness we can remember this mercy. Ultimately, it is this mystery of God’s love that shines through every one of the great pope’s insights and, indeed, through his whole life. Everything John Paul II gave to the Church and the world that he so loved was and is an expression of this: God, rich in mercy, who gave himself to the world in his only Son.
MICHELLE K. BORRAS is theologian in residence at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C., and director of the Order’s Catholic Information Service.
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