April 27, 2014 saw an event unprecedented in history. In St. Peter’s Square, Rome, 2 Popes were canonized at the same ceremony, with two living Popes in attendance. The new Pope Saints are St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, while the Popes in attendance were Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The event drew millions of pilgrims to the familiar confines of the Square. Canonizations are the result of a fact-finding process, and not a random declaration of holiness, as some might think. Canonization is a recognition of signs that demonstrate a person’s sanctity, such as proof of a holy life, and miracles attributed to the person’s intercession. The canonization process, concluded with Pope Francis’ declaration of April 27, is a standard way of investigating a person’s sanctity. We are blessed to be able to declare both these wonderful Popes as Saints!
St. Pope John Paul’s baptismal name was Karol Wojtyla. He was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. His birth took place just after the end of World War I, and the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, which made Poland an independent nation. Young Wojyla’s Poland was free, yet caught geographically in between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The threat of war hung over Poland in these days. Yet, God was stirring up great saints in Poland in the 1930’s, such as St. Maximillian Kolbe, and St. Faustina Kowalska.
Tragedy marked Karol Wojtyla’s younger years. His mother died when he was only 9 years old. His older (and only) brother died when Karol was 12 years old. During the rest of Karol’s upbringing, the household consisted of Karol and his father. Wojtyla had a happy upbringing, engaging in athletic, religious, academic, and theatrical pursuits. He befriended many Jewish children, who lived in his town. That happy upbringing would be shattered by the beginning of World War II on September 1, 1939. German and Soviet armies would invade Poland, and split the country in half. Thus begun a bitter six year occupation of the country. Many of Wojtyla’s friends would be sent to the infamous Nazi concentration camps in Poland. Wojtyla’s university would be shut down. During this time, his father died, making Karol an orphan. Karol would work in a rock quarry during the war, while also entering the seminary. In those days, being a seminarian was illegal, and Karol had to study in secret.
Nazi occupation of Poland would end, as would the war. Wojtyla would be ordained a priest on November 1, 1946, All Saints Day. At that time, Poland had fallen under the domination of the Soviet Union, a domination that would continue for over 40 years. The regime was atheistic, and did all that it could to undermine Polish national identity. The Catholic Church was the biggest enemy of the Communist regime. In his young priesthood, Father Wojtyla would work with the youth. He would frequently take them on trips into the mountains, and on kayaking trips. He taught at the local university, and engaged the minds and hearts of the young. He worked extensively with young families, wishing to support them. His was a blessed and active priesthood. On July 4, 1958, at a relatively young age of 38, Father Wojtyla was appointed the Auxilary Bishop of Krakow.
Bishop Wojtyla would prove to be a formidable foe of the Communist regime. While not a revolutionary, Bishop Wojtyla was a robust supporter of Polish national identity. Nothing was as central to that identity than the Catholic faith. For twenty years, the Bishop would lead his flock in reaffirming faith in Jesus Christ against state atheism. Bishop Wojtyla would be called by Pope John XXIII to the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Bishop Wojtyla would make contributions to the Council, especially in the areas of religious freedom, morality, and dialogue with the modern world. He would be elevated to the Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and then to Cardinal in 1967.
On October 22, 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla would be elected Pope, taking for his name that of his predecessor, John Paul. John Paul had a one-month Pontificate, dying soon after his election in 1978. Therefore, Wojtyla would be known as John Paul II. Much of what Pope John Paul had an amazing 26.5 year Pontificate. Lest you forget all that happened, here are the highlights:
– He wrote extensively on almost every theological and moral subject, touching most areas of social life. His writings are almost a second volume to the Second Vatican Council documents. Pope John Paul II has an extensive audio and video library, which can be found online with ease.
– He travelled to more countries that any other person. He remains the most personally encountered person in the history of the world.
– He put in place the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, promulgating a new Code of Canon Law, and a new Catechism.
– He survived an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981. He would personally meet with and forgive his would-be assassin.
– His visit to Poland in 1979 and continual encouragements of the Solidarity Labor movement would lead to the fall of Communism in 1989 in Poland, then in the rest of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union would eventually dissolve.
– He would dedicate His Papacy to the Blessed Mother Mary. He was a tireless promoter of the Rosary. He took as His personal motto “Totus Tuus” – totally yours – totally dedicated to Jesus and Mary. He would consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1984.
– John Paul would improve inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue, furthering the legacy of Pope John XXIII and Paul VI.
– John Paul would give a series of General Audiences at St. Peter’s Square in Rome about sexuality and marriage. This collection is now called the “Theology of the Body”. It has led to a revolution in the way that the Church understands married love.
– He was a tireless advocate of non-violence, especially in Poland. Pope John Paul taught against the evils of abortion and euthanasia.
– John Paul started the World Youth Day movement, gathering hundreds of thousands, even millions, of youth for summer festivals of faith. Many vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and marriage (including my vocation) came from attending World Youth Day.
– He led the Church into the New Millennium in 2000, declaring the Year a Holy Year, a Jubilee. Millions pilgrimaged to Rome in that year (including me!). John Paul dedicated the New Millennium to the Blessed Trinity.
– Pope John Paul promoted the Divine Mercy Devotion, making the Second Sunday of Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday”. He canonized St. Faustina Kowalska, making her the first saint of the New Millennium.
– Pope John Paul added a new set of mysteries to the Rosary, the “Luminous Mysteries” in 2002.
– John Paul showed us how to age, suffer, and die with dignity. This was his most powerful witness.
In his canonization homily, Pope Francis remarked that both St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII were saints because they never allowed themselves to be overwhelmed. They always kept moving forward in faith, even when things were bleak. They have left us a legacy of faith, and a Church renewed by the Holy Spirit! Let us pray for their intercession. We may never become Popes, but we can become Saints. That is by far the better title!