It was about 8.30 p.m. on Saturday, April 2, 2005, when Pope John Paul II breathed his last, surrounded as it were by scores of thousands of people praying at St. Peter’s Square, and hundreds of millions of Christians and other admirers of all faiths praying all over the world for him. Most people would have a hard time believing that Pope John Paul II is really dead. This is not to suggest that the 84 year-old Catholic Pontiff was too young to die. At 84 John Paul II had lived well beyond the eighty years declared by Scripture for those who are strong. However the passing away of this Pope had been predicted so many times before without success that even the prophets of his death had given up trying. That is why many would wisely check again whether this colossus of a Pontiff, one with the proverbial nine lives is really and truly dead. But this time, it is for real.
The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, Bishop of Rome who called himself the “Servant of the Servants of God,” is dead! Men who are great, as they say, often leave the stage the way they came in - with little pomp or pageantry. But in the evening of Saturday February 2, John Paul II literally had the whole world on its knees praying for him when he died, leaving behind a Church that he loved so much, and to which he has given even much more.
John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the little Polish town of Wadowice located about 35 miles from Krakow to a soldier father, Karol and Emilia Wojtyla, both devout Catholic parents. Because of his prominent face and ebullient nature he was affectionately nicknamed Lolek. As if to signal the streak that would run all through his life, John Paul II started experiencing hardship and deprivation when at the age of nine he lost his mother who died suddenly from kidney and heart trouble. His only brother died soon afterwards when he was twelve and his father completed the cycle when Karol was 21. After studying for the priesthood, secretly in Poland, Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on November 1st 1946.
Although strongly influenced by his very religious family, the future Pope chose to study literature and the Polish language earlier in life rather than history and philosophy. A gifted sportsman and actor as he was, many who knew him could have sworn that had he not been a priest he would most certainly have chosen a stage career. He was ordained Bishop in 1958 and became auxiliary Bishop of Krakow the Archdiocese of which in the following year he would be made Archbishop. In 1962 Karol, always among the best, became the youngest member of the first session of the Second Vatican Council where he showed particular interest in and made brilliant contributions to the discussion on religious freedom. He became Cardinal in 1967 and in 1978 went with other prelates to elect a new Pope after John Paul I had died, a mere 33 days into his reign.
On October 16th 1978 smoke billowed over the Vatican to signal the election of the 163rd successor to St Peter, a man whose name was neither in the initial list nor in the press kit of probable candidates supplied to the media by Vatican officials. Karol Lolek Wojtyla had been elected the first Slav Pope in history, the youngest Pontiff for a hundred years and the one to break the Italians’ 400 year long hold on the papacy. Many took their time believing it but John Paul II, in an outdoor inauguration Mass solemnly declared “In obedience of faith before Christ my Lord, abandoning myself to the Mother of Christ and of the Church, conscious of the great difficulties, I accept”. The crowd erupted in joy mixed with astonishment.
And John Paul II has never ceased astonishing his church and the world at large. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the great American Presidents once declared that the only real gift is a portion of oneself. That is exactly the way by which John Paul II packaged his gift to his beloved Church albeit to the whole world. An outstanding Pastor, he was the most widely travelled Pontiff, his trips covering more kilometres than all his predecessors put together. As a vigorous teacher he wrote on the most ample range of issues.
Between his first encyclical letter titled, The Redeemer of Manpublished in 1979 and his recently published autobiography, Memory and Ideology, John Paul II who had been a prolific author even before his election as Pope, sought to clarify a number of issues of human concern from his strong Catholic convictions about the goodness and mercy of God, the sanctity and dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, the integrity of the human family, the evil of war, the evil of abortion, the evil of capital punishment and the justice that makes for peace. He wrote on faith and reason, the priesthood, the Eucharist, the consecrated life, the African Church, and ecumenism, among others.
The Pope’s life was a journey of personal, physical self-giving which peaked in 1981 when doctors had to remove part of his intestine to treat wounds sustained from the guns of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Through more than seven surgical interventions and the debilitating effects of Parkinson ‘s disease John Paul II pastured the Church for 26 eventful years.
Often called the greatest spiritual leader of our times, John Paul II came across himself not just as a pastor and teacher but as a fighter, a champion of struggling humanity. His permanent spirit of resistance to all kinds of oppression took root already from his participation in the resistance to the occupation of his country and helped to compose him into a man of exceptional character. His very effective crusade against the culture of sin and death and fight for justice and peace, were always coloured by an unmistakable empathy with the downtrodden and weak as are clearly reflected in his grand library of writings.
The world’s appreciation of John Paul II’s humaneness rose a notch higher when in December 1983 he visited his would be assassin in prison and publicly forgave him for the attempt made on his life. On another occasion, Emmanuel Milingo, Archbishop of Lusaka faced condemnation from every possible angle for renouncing his vows of the priesthood and taking a Korean wife. The Pope with outstanding pastoral empathy personally invited Milingo back to the fold. After sitting in private audience with him, Milingo buckled and returned into the warm embrace of the Church.
John Paul II set out right from the start to change the face of the papacy and the Church and did he manage it, and forever! An untiring crusader for peace and unity, he reopened diplomatic relations with Israel, held regular meetings with world leaders of various religions, and even prayed in the synagogue and the mosque. “We are united by our affinity to Abraham he declared.” For this and more, John Paul II had more than his fair share of critics who also considered him retrogressive and myopic in ideas because of his opposition to abortion, artificial birth control, homosexual practice and women ordination. Would it not be surprising if the Pope’s views as leader of the Catholic Church worldwide would be any different? Yet no one can really interpret the episcopacy of John Paul II without regard for the place in his life of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom he ascribes his miraculous survival of the 1981 assassination attempt. The Pope raised concerned eyebrows, even from ecclesiastical insiders, for some of his actions. A clear example was at the close of the last millennium, when he publicly asked for forgiveness for the sins of the agents of the Church all through history against women, against the Jews and other aggrieved parties.
John Paul II in his self-giving had little regard for personal safety. Not a few Vatican officials came close to heart attacks ensuring his safety when he insisted on visiting high security risk areas on his numerous trips to Africa, Israel and other turbulent parts of the world where he did not shy away from speaking up against oppressive regimes and policies. Just as busy when he is not travelling, John Paul II has granted audiences for more people than any other Pope, before him, hosting over 17million pilgrims in his General Audiences, and over 700 meetings with world leaders and elected officials from all over the globe.
A flamboyant polyglot, the Pope gave his last Christmas greetings in 63 languages. The world was indeed his mission, and the young people everywhere his companions and friends. Hundreds of thousands of them screamed and wept with ecstasy at his appearance wherever he met them because everyone, no matter the age was drawn to greatness and few would doubt the fact that John Paul II was one of the greatest men that ever lived. In turn he took the youth seriously, and spoke to their life and experiences. He once said on their behalf: “To make this world more just means making sure there are no young people without suitable training; that there are no systems that permit the exploitation of man by man or by the state” The media enjoyed his trust and they helped him spread his message. Time Magazine once nominated the Holy Father its Man of the Year.
John Paul II has often has been described as the healing Pope for his fence mending efforts among religions, the travelling Pope for his astounding travelling activities, the peaceful Pope for his unmistakable opposition to war which he called a defeat for the entire humanity and the human rights Pope for his crusade for rights of peoples all over the world. Perhaps however, the greatest tribute to John Paul II is that he was the suffering Pope who gave the world a new appreciation of suffering being much more than just an evil to be conquered. He carried his own physical cross with equanimity and urged others who suffered like him not to be afraid, even in circumstances of pain or suffering. The entire world will surely miss John Paul II, the Pope that has steered the Church into the 21stCentury, but will be consoled that the soul of the grand old man can finally rest in perfect peace.