John Paul II: The Man From a Distant Land
Who Taught Us to Not Be Afraid
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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
VATICAN CITY, OCT. 16, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Today marks another of Rome’s and the Vatican’s significant anniversaries taking place during the Twelfth Ordinary Synod of Bishops at the Vatican.
I remember very well this night 30 years ago -- Oct. 16, 1978. I was a 19-year-old university student, driving home from classes at the university, when the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the 264th Successor to the Apostle Peter. The radio announced that there was white smoke in the evening Roman air. After the sad events of the previous weeks of 1978 in Rome, anxiety and expectation were in my North American air. Little did I ever imagine that night that I would come to know this man, serve him, love him and strive to imitate him.
On that first night in 1978, Pope John Paul II stood on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica and opened his arms, his heart and his mind to the world. His refrain would become: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” During this synod, John Paul II’s name and memory have been evoked dozens of times by the synod fathers, especially in relation to his now famous letters “Redemptoris Missio” and “Novo Millennio Ineunte.”
There are few places on this planet that have not been touched by Pope John Paul II. He opened the doors to millions of human hearts, bringing to women and men of every race, nation and culture, a message of hope; a message telling us that human dignity is rooted in the fact that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God. He was a living exegesis of the Gospels. He walked his talk.
The final days
At the end of March and the beginning of April in 2005, we were inundated with words, stories, images, and profoundly moving ceremonies coming to us from this very place. We learned once again in the retreating and passing of Pope John Paul II how vast a person he was among us and on the world stage. Our memories of what he was like before his "retreat" or "departure" became suffused with the profound weight of post-mortem insight.
That period of 2005 was an extraordinary time of evangelization, catechesis and education for the universal Church. John Paul II was a bestseller in life and also in death. The Vatican daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, got it right on the Wednesday after John Paul II’s death with the huge title on its Wednesday daily Italian edition -- a day normally set aside to cover the Pope's weekly General Audience. The title read "Che Udienza!" (What an audience!) as over 600,000 people passed silently that day through the Vatican basilica to pray before the body of John Paul II.
This morning as I sat quietly in the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae in Vatican City before walking over to the Synod building, many moments and images came flooding back to me about the man who took the world by storm 30 years ago tonight. One, in particular, far from the glare of cameras and the media, was cause for quiet gratitude to God. It took place in June 2001, and happened to be Corpus Christi weekend in the Church and Father’s Day back home.
As national director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, I was in Rome with our senior team of World Youth Day 2002 attending a Vatican international forum of youth leaders preparing for the event. On the Saturday evening, the Pope’s private secretary and gatekeeper, then-Archbishop Stanislas Dziwisz, phoned me and told me that the Holy Father wanted to invite me and the 12 members of our World Youth Day national team for mass the following morning -- the feast of Corpus Christi.
“Don Stanislao” said that it was a “family affair” and he asked me to prepare the readings and music. He didn’t give any more details than that. My staff was stunned with the invitation and that night at Domus Mariae where we were staying, we rehearsed several hymns. Click here for Salt and Light Television’s WITNESS Interview with Cardinal Stanislas Dziwisz: http://www.saltandlighttv.org/prog_slprog_witness_popup_dziwisz.html
The following morning we showed up at the Vatican’s Bronze Door for Mass, not quite knowing what to expect. Upon arrival in the Papal apartment, we were ushered into the Papal chapel and saw the Pope kneeling, deep in prayer.
On the right side of the chapel was a family of about 20 people: grandparents, parents and several children. In the front row was a young couple holding a baby in what appeared to be baptismal garments. I suddenly realized what this was -- a baptism ceremony in the Pope’s chapel!
Who was this family? After vesting, Archbishop Dziwisz said to me: “Oh, I forgot to tell you; 'il Santo Padre' is baptizing Maria Cristina, granddaughter of one of his best childhood friends. We wanted you to come with your young staff to join in on this family celebration and sing for us."
It was an unforgettable Mass and baptismal ceremony that moved all of us to tears and many smiles! After mass we gathered in the Papal library for “family photos” and much fun with a Pope who was elderly and suffering before our very eyes. I recall at one point as I was introducing the World Youth Day staff to him, that the Holy Father leaned over and asked me why several of the young adults were crying. Fighting back my own tears, I responded to him: “Because of you.”
In the midst of such daunting responsibilities, John Paul II never lost the common touch and the gift of friendship with those who formed the mosaic of his childhood and youth. On the way out of the papal apartment that morning, his best friend from childhood was beaming, telling me that the Holy Father had married his children and baptized all of his grandchildren. It was a promise that the Pope made to his friend. The elderly man said, “This morning, Lolek was Lolek." ("Lolek" was Karol Wojtyla's childhood nickname among his personal friends.)
During the final years of that brilliant pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength -- a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering.
To this Botox generation of false, eternal youth, John Paul II's unwillingness to hide his age carried a countercultural twist. The contrast between John Paul II's physical vigor at the start of his pontificate and his state at journey’s end was striking. Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing tall, as a giant.
As I look out over this synodal assembly of pastors and leaders from every corner of the earth, I realize how much they have been marked and impacted by John Paul II. We were told yesterday that all but 39 of 253 “padri sinodali” were appointed bishops by Pope John Paul II. His spirit has gently hovered over this synodal assembly and I have no doubt that the servant of God is kept busy interceding for us.
This evening at 5:30 p.m. we went over to the Paul VI Hall to join Benedict XVI, Cardinal Stanislas Dziwisz and nearly 5,000 invited guests for the premiere showing of the movie: “Testimony” based on the book by Cardinal Dziwisz “My Life with Karol.”
Dziwisz had served as Cardinal Wojtyla’s and then Pope John Paul II’s secretary for nearly 40 years. Cardinal Dziwisz is now the archbishop of Krakow, following in the footsteps of his mentor, father and friend. It was a deeply moving experience to be in that assembly tonight, gathered around Benedict XVI and the thousands of invited guests who were invited to gather together at the Vatican this evening and remember that blessed night 30 years ago when they called to Rome that man from a distant country.
May we learn from "Papa Wojtyla" how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges and proclaim the Gospel to the people of our time. May we have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter's witness and the boldness of Paul's proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla -- Pope John Paul II.
Thank you, Pope John Paul II, for the memories, the example and the legacy. Remember us, intercede for us, guide this synod to its completion, and bless us from your window in the Father's house!
Click here for special Salt and Light Television tribute titled “(A href="http://www.saltandlighttv.org/prog_slprog_thanku_jp2.html">Thank you, John Paul II.”
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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is the Vatican's English-language press attache for the 2008 world Synod of Bishops. A Scripture scholar and university lecturer, he is the chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, and a member of the General Council of the Congregation of St. Basil.